By Steve Early and Rand Wilson – When the history of Midwestern de- unionization is written, its chroniclers will begin their sad tale in Indiana where Governor Mitch Daniels paved the way in 2005 for copycat attacks on public- sector bargaining, and for a successful assault on private sector union security in his own state.
Republican governors elected in the fall of 2010, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, and Rick Snyder in Michigan, all looked to Daniels as their model and quickly rescinded bargaining rights for most public sector workers. As a result, major unions are now operating in hundreds, if not thousands, of workplaces in which union membership has just become voluntary. Clearly, conducting “business as usual” is not a viable option.
What is a ‘Non-Majority’ Union?
The term may be misleading since non-majority unions may actually represent a majority of people in a worksite. But the term is in contrast to unions that are formed under laws, such as the National Labor Relations Act or, until recently, the Wisconsin State Employee Labor Relations Act, where the employer is bound to recognize the union if a majority of workers vote for one. Non-majority unions are often the only form possible where the law prohibits working people from simply voting to establish a union with collective bargaining rights, such as in much of the South in this country and, now, for many public employees in Wisconsin.
It is worth noting that, for most of our history, workers in both the private sector and public sector organized and won significant wage gains, benefits and improvement in working conditions without legal rights. That is, by organizing non- majority unions.
Public sector unionists with long experience in open shop states in the South argue that all is not lost for their brothers and sisters in the North. United Electrical Workers (UE), for example, has formed non-majority unions that organize and represent workers without a union contract.
In North Carolina, UE Local 150 gained strength in the university system, which includes sixteen campuses and over 19,000 workers. Organizer Steve Bader reported that when UNC refused to meet, “UE organized Martin Luther King Day leafleting, Black History Month black armband days, and meetings with legislators.” The university subsequently “recognized workers’ rights to join and build their union without retaliation, changed the grievance policy to allow a co-worker grievance assistant, and established ‘meet and confer’ bodies between employees and top management.”
UE expanded to other UNC campuses and the Department of Health and Human Services. City workers in Durham voted to affiliate and even conducted several strikes. Activists have won grievances over unfair discipline, forced racist managers and supervisors off the job, and gotten raises of $1,500-3,000 for individual workers.
UE also gathers and distributes data on wages, benefits, personnel practices, and employment-related legislative initiatives. Members speak directly to elected officials, rather than relying on professional lobbyists. Legislative priorities or accomplishments include winning flat rather than percentage raises to aid the lowest paid, improved grievance procedures, stronger family and medical leave rights, and protection against discrimination based on disability. UE generated much publicity for its creative challenge of North Carolina’s ban on public-sector bargaining as a violation of international labor standards.
Tom Smith is an organizer for and former president of Communications Workers of America Local 3865, Tennessee’s United Campus Workers, a “non-majority union” of state university workers that’s grown from two dozen members on one campus to more than 1,200 in eight cities in the last ten years.
Listening to Co-workers
“While having dues check-off helps, not having it isn’t fatal,” says Smith. “We realized that spending the majority of our time playing bill collector was not part and parcel of union democracy, nor did it help build the kind of political relationships we’re aiming for on the job.” Instead, stewards spent more time “listening to co-workers, gathering opinions, organizing meetings, and working to save jobs from budget cuts.”
Local 3865 switched to a bank- draft system to deduct dues from members’ accounts. “Very few people sign on first contact” because “a longer relationship must be built beforehand.”
The CWA-backed Texas State Employees Union (TSEU) is a “non- majority union” heavily subsidized by the national union for many years. TSEU has built up a dues-paying membership base of about 12,000, out of over 120,000 state employees. Lead organizer Jim Branson explains:
“We have a voice on the job because we are an active and growing movement that puts a lot of emphasis on organizing. Union activists formulate goals, plan actions for winning those goals, meet with agency heads, and when the legislature is in session, speak directly to lawmakers. If a united group of workers act like a union, they can have a voice on the job. It’s not easy, but it can be done.”
Activist William Rogers says his union “has managed to win some victories even though it has very few legal rights.” In 2007, TSEU led a campaign that saved thousands of government jobs by preventing expansion of privatization of the state’s health and human services. “That was a fight of organized workers, even though we weren’t a majority in the health and human services agency, and we didn’t have collective bargaining. Members mobilized like crazy and turned public opinion against the privatization plan. When the contractor screwed up, the state had no choice but to fire it.”
TSEU members throughout Texas lobbied elected officials and succeeded in getting about 100 counties and municipalities to pass resolutions against the governor’s privatization plan. They also visited state legislators, marched, rallied, demonstrated, held press conferences, and spoke out at public hearings. In the process, reports Branson, “We got workers who had been sitting on the fence to join the union. We were able to maintain our presence in the agency — even though a lot of workers were quitting in anticipation of being laid off — because we never stopped organizing.”
In Janesville, Wisconsin, AFSCME Council 40 representative Ed Sadlowski, Jr, welcomes “old-school unionism that we haven’t had in the past.” Already, highway maintenance workers and public employees have been forced to organize in response to work-rule changes, and unfair discipline. Before Walker’s law, the union might just have filed grievances, Sadlowski notes, but “now it’s ‘get people to the picket line.’ Direct action gets the goods.”
Steve Early and Rand Wilson are longtime labor organizers. This article is adapted, with permission, from their Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (Monthly Review Books, 2012).