Little Rock Reading about the second battle of Wisconsin between labor and Governor Scott Walker and his Republican colleagues, who four years ago stripped public workers’ unions in that state of the ability to collect agency fees or “fair share” payments in lieu of dues for representation, it seems they are making short work of getting rid of the same “union shop” provisions for private sector workers, adding Wisconsin to the list of “right to work” states.Unions are protesting loudly there, but seem resigned to the inevitability of defeat. No doubt tipping Wisconsin will embolden other politicians waiting in line to
kick unions on their way down.
Labor is starting to piece together of chain of similar setbacks. Last year home health care workers in Illinois, long members of our old sister local there, lost union shop provisions after an adverse US Supreme Court ruling.There has not been the immediate ripple effect that might have occasioned that reversal, but it is a sleeper bomb embedded in the memories of our opponents waiting for the opportunity to explode.
Over the last year visiting with union leaders and organizers in the United Kingdom, I sometimes found myself musing privately on the strategic and tactical thinking of labor in that country when they lost the union shop under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and then never made regaining that system a key item when the Labor Party held the chair for long years under Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.Victor Bussie, the former president of the Louisiana AFL-CIO for seemingly forever was the longest serving such officer at the state level in the labor movement and the only one dating back to the merger of the CIO and the AFL in the last 1950s. In annual convention after convention when Bussie would stand for election, he would say he was committed to staying in office until he
was able to win back the union shop that was lost in 1976 when Louisiana became the last state to fall into that column.
It now seems to me that that maybe our brothers and sisters got it right in the UK. Having weathered the storm, lost members, and survived, why jump back on that horse to see it race back and forth with each change of government when you are in a fight for the long haul. Maybe even Brother Bussie also could have spent his time better? Some union organizers in the UK even prefer the new system, including alternate non-employer based dues collection procedures in organizing a workforce no longer chained to the bench for life.
We may have simply lost the messaging battle on this campaign irrevocably. As our membership percentage declines and unions are seen as a luxury benefit rather than a necessity for many on the job, then membership becomes more understandable as a voluntary choice than a mandatory obligation and the explanation for using management to help collect a union’s dues becomes a bridge too far for the public and even
for many workers.
Where we can get it, we should use it, but now that corporate and political forces are preparing as we see in Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere to take the fight past right-to-work to eliminate the ability to use payroll deductions completely, we need to embrace the position of people like the GMB’s organizing director who argued to me that they preferred direct dues payments from individual’s bank accounts to payroll deductions.
In our union we are going to stop enrolling members unless they are signing two places on the card, one for payroll deduction and one for direct bank drafts.It is a herculean task and investment to re-sign everyone from one system to another, but it is a much simpler matter to enroll members in a different way from the beginning. Once joining, it is a trivial matter for a new recruit to sign twice, because they have made the key decision once that they want to be in the union.
The tide is going out and it may never come back to shore. Unions need to be careful not to be stranded on the beach all alone like Robinson Crusoe on their own private and deserted island.
Woody Guthrie “Union Burying Ground”