Victoria After endless hours in planes, crossing the international dateline, and airports from Seoul to Tokyo to Seattle and then finally to the small airfield in Victoria, British Columbia, it felt good to be among friends last night again with the brothers and sisters of the British Columbia Government Employees Union (BCGEU) at their regional leadership conference here. As exciting was to catch a whiff of resistance from the combined forces of unions and community organizations, which are exactly the linkages being explored at this labor conference in Canada, in Michigan a traditional labor stronghold, and the Miami area which has traditionally not been.
The other presenter I’m tag teaming with in Victoria is Jason Sidener, the membership mobilization coordinator in Wisconsin for AFSCME District Council 40, which has been ground zero in contending with the conservative assault against labor and collective bargaining rights, who fortunately will no doubt be advising the BCGEU on how to hold on to what they have in British Columbia, which has not been easy either. All of which makes the news from Michigan exiting where labor has moved preemptively to shore up its strengths on the offense rather than waiting for attack and playing defense. There are a number of ballot initiatives before the voters in coming weeks which would in fact shore up unions and bargaining rights. If successful, collective bargaining protections would be enshrined in the state constitution making draconian politics like Wisconsin much, much harder to implement. Other initiatives would restore collective bargaining rights for home health care workers lost in a Michigan gubernatorial transfer and prevent collective bargaining contracts from being voided by city managers when facing financial difficulties that have been the rage from Detroit to smaller cities. Will we win? Maybe yes, maybe no? I’ve been in these kinds of votes on living wage matters, and the last minute pushes by business to create fear among the voters about jobs are sometimes enough to turn the tide against us, as was the case in Houston and Denver 15 years ago. Regardless, as we found repeatedly with living wages – this is the right strategy, and it’s about time!
In Broward County outside Miami this week, they joined Miami-Dade in a Wage Recovery Ordinance thanks to the leadership of the Interfaith Workers Justice coalition which has been instrumental over recent years in raising the issue of “wage theft” for unprotected workers. The ordinance in Miami-Dade allows a conciliation process to cut the red tape and aid collection of back pay while protecting both workers’ rights and honest businesses. IWJ says that over $500,000 in back wages have been restored, which is a good start. Having Broward County come into the program helps this along. IWJ says that Grand Rapids, Michigan is looking at the same thing thanks to the work done by the Gamaliel Foundation’s affiliate, the Micah Center, in that area. Yes, the Department of Labor should be doing their job better. Yes, unions and community organizations should be willing to unite and deal directly with scofflaw businesses exploiting workers. But, yes, this is also a good solid, new front that helps us open a new front again to fightback.
It’s time for more living wage campaigns, too. No sense being a sitting duck. We need to be on the move again!