Labor Shorts is a regular column digesting recent labor news (compiled this week by Mike Kolhoff and Steve Fake)
Since the first teacher sick-ins in mid-February, in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s union-gutting state budget bill, events in Wisconsin have galvanized the left across the nation. It is without question, the most significant story of labor resistance in the U.S. since the December 2008 occupation of the Chicago-based Republic Windows & Doors.
Mass rallies in Madison have drawn workers and students from all over the state and well beyond.
Of no small symbolic significance, the capitol building itself was occupied for a number of days, despite official attempts to seal off the building. Labor Notes reports on the wonderful imagery accompanying an attempt to resupply the protesters still on the inside after the lockout: “Firefighters… broke through the police blockade Tuesday afternoon, as 20 marched into the Capitol in their full gear, led by bagpipers.” Meanwhile, “Thousands are still massing outside the statehouse, testifying on a microphone set up by the Bricklayers. The anger of participants grew as they remained shut out of the statehouse.”
Yet the union leadership indicated its willingness to concede to Gov. Walker’s financial demands, only drawing a line at those aspects of the bill that would directly harm them – namely, the right to collectively bargain and the preservation of automatic dues deductions. The latter ensures the security of union budgets but also tends to permit union bureaucracies to be less accountable to membership.
It is far from clear if union leadership is willing to use all of its leverage available to win this fight. Will a general strike be seriously pursued, or will the Governor’s legislation, passed on Thursday, March 10th, be permitted to stand?
The Socialist Worker gives further details on the meekness of the union leadership:
“After the vast February 26 rally, top union officials suddenly took a low profile. The daily noontime labor rallies ceased. And when Walker made his budget proposal in the Capitol on the afternoon of March 1, there was no formal labor rally.
Fortunately, the University of Wisconsin graduate employees union, the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA), brought along a sound system and organized an open mic used by a range of union students, teachers, firefighters and others to sound off about why they were determined to keep up the fight. ….
With labor leaders vacillating over what to do next, grassroots activists have attempted to fill the vacuum as much as possible. For example, the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition, organizes on the basis of opposing not just the attacks on union rights, but also the reduction in workers’ pay, cuts in Medicaid and other state health programs, the privatization of the University of Wisconsin and more.
Activists in the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition worked with National Nurses United to organize a meeting February 27 at the Madison Labor Temple to build a campaign against all concessions. The sentiment in the room was: Why is labor, in the midst of its greatest show of strength in decades, still sounding the retreat?”
At a public meeting called by the group National Nurses United, one participant suggested a goal for victory much richer than simply ‘no concessions’: “We should involve the public in a participatory budgeting process and put forward an alternative budget that relies on increased taxes on the rich rather than cuts in social services for the poor and cuts in pay and benefits for public workers.”
The Industrial Workers of the World have also been advancing a stronger bargaining position, not to mention a more democratic union model. Though far smaller than the major players, they represent an approach to unionism with much more potential. In the midst of the demonstrations, they have produced an excellent flier to promote labor’s strongest card: the general strike. We can only hope that they gain strength from, and give strength to, the unfolding events.
Rallies of as many as 20,000 have gathered in Columbus last week to protest proposed legislation (SB5) that would end collective bargaining rights for state employees.
Protesters have mobilized in Indianapolis to defeat a “right-to-work” bill. Labor Notes reports that:
A thousand rallied inside the crowded statehouse in Indianapolis Monday [Feb. 28th] while House Democrats continued their exile in Illinois, listing 11 anti-worker bills they want dropped before they are willing to return and provide a quorum.
Unfortunately, the union bureaucracy has begun to curtail the crowds:
“The AFL-CIO is also shortening the hours of protests, focusing on mid-day, in contrast to last week, when protesters spent long days in the Capitol, only leaving at 9 p.m. when the building closed. When voices have been raised to try civil disobedience, one source said, AFL-CIO leaders “frowned on that.” It’s not clear what a successful escalation would look like.”
With leadership like that, it is no surprise labor is currently being pushed to the wall.
Michigan / China
A new report documents the medieval (or, better, Victorian) labor conditions prevailing at Yuwei Plastics and Hardware Products company in Dongguan, China, which produces mostly for Ford Motor Company. At the press release notes, “The Yuwei factory has a U.S. office and warehouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Workers earn a base wage of just 80 cents an hour, working 14-hour shifts and 7 days a week.” Needless to say, the position of workers in Michigan is bound up with the position of workers in the developing world. It is a situation that calls for substantial labor solidarity of a kind scarcely hinted at heretofore. The verbal support offered by the AFL-CIO and United Auto Workers of a strike last June at a Honda parts plant in Foshan City in the Guangdong Province of China, is hardly sufficient.
Over 2000 union members and supporters gathered at the Michigan capitol building February 26 in solidarity with the workers of Wisconsin. The Michigan Republican-controlled legislature is considering its own attacks on public sector workers that stop just short of eliminating the right to bargain.
Members of the Lansing Workers Center (which includes unionists from the MEA, Teamsters and the IWW) have been present at the series of rallies which began with the unveiling of the governor’s corrupt budget on February 17. The budget includes massive tax cuts for business, to be paid for with massive tax increases on retirees and low income workers and concessions from public workers. There was also a large rally on February 22 that drew over 2000 workers, including hundreds of police and firefighters who marched in solidarity around the capitol building.
Locally, in addition to state workers, public workers at the City of Lansing and Lansing Community College are also facing demands for concessions and give backs from the bosses. Concessions in both cases include cuts to paid time off (vacations and holidays) which offer no significant institutional budget savings, but instead assert the mastery of management over workers and undermine the validity of the workers unions.
On March 9 over 1000 union members stormed the state capitol building in Lansing, occupying every gallery of the rotunda. Chants of “This is OUR HOUSE” echoed through the building. So much noise was made that the state senate was unable to contiune consideration of the Emergency Manager bill, which would give state-appointed fiscal managers the right to dissolve collective bargaining agreements.
Another demonstration is scheduled for March 16.
Labor Notes reports that:
“More than 1,000 nurses at Kaiser-Permanente’s Los Angeles Medical Center walked off the job Wednesday [March 2nd] over staffing levels they say threaten patient care.The nurses—members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW)—say Kaiser is stalling contract talks and refusing to improve nurse to patient ratios.”
The field of health care presents certain inherent limitations on strikes (or risk harming patients), so the action only lasted for 24 hours.
Similarly, Labor Notes counted some 2,000 people in attendance Friday at a one-day strike of nurses from the Washington Hospital Center in protest of “short staffing and compensation cuts.” The nurses at the hospital have “documented 103 instances of unsafe patient care since last October, and marched on the boss several times” in protest.
A labor and delivery nurse complained of the work conditions imposed on her and her coworkers, “It’s a sickening feeling when you’re swimming backwards and just hoping you get through the shift without an incident.”
Union organizer and labor historian Gordon Simmons is interviewed by NPR’s All Things Considered. The infamous Blair Mountain, site of an epic 1921 labor battle, is being considered for reentry on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the ghosts of the past continue to linger. The value of the coal under the land has prompted opposition to the historical designation from the state’s largest coal companies. Simmons comments, “This is a political fight, this is a social fight, this is a fight about our history, our heritage, our culture. It’s a fight about what kind of society West Virginia is going to be going forward and what has been in its past.”
Some 1,500 people rallied in Tampa at Publix supermarket stores on Saturday (March 5th) to demand that the chain pay a penny more for each pound of tomatoes picked by farmworkers.
On Wednesday (March 2nd) 900 marched through the Boston snow to call on grocery store chain, Stop & Shop, to meet the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ demand for a penny per pound increase in wages to Florida farmworkers.