Attacking Unions by Going after Members and Money Continues Everywhere

Union activists and supporters rally against the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case.
(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

New Orleans       Back in the United States one of the first articles I had to read in detail on my return focused on the efforts of the right wing legal shops to sue big public employee unions in Washington, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California for repayment of agency fees accepted from nonmembers for servicing and bargaining prior to the Supreme Court’s rejection of this forty-one years long standard in the Janus v. AFSCME case.  Local 1000 SEIU composed of almost 100,000 state employees was sued for $100 million alone.

Is this really about the money or just more intimidation as part of the war on the poor and working people?

The US Constitution is clear.  There can be no ex post facto laws, meaning that no one can be liable for behavior that was legal prior to the passage of a new law or court decision.  Federal courts in fact have continued to hold the line on this at the lower level of the courts.  Reimbursement legal challenges in Illinois and other states on the Harris decision that attacked fees being collected from home health care workers in many states have all failed and in most cases were thrown out of court for these reasons.  Some legal experts are worried that the legal strategy from conservatives is to get the case to the determinedly anti-union majority in the Supreme Court by hook-or-crook.  Some lawyers are warning that the collateral damage of opening this window into previous liability could snare a lot of big companies which might be the only thing that protects unions.  Realistically, this is all about trying to intimidate unions and force them to run up their legal bills to the money doesn’t benefit their members in other ways.

In Manchester, England, I talked at length to an organizer who was working as part of a  team with the national employees’ union to get turnout on a strike vote of over 50% of all eligible employees in the bargaining unit, as opposed to just winning a majority of those that vote.  This rule was deliberately imposed as an obstacle for the unions and to some degree it has worked, although after nine years of 1% raises, the organizers are hoping this is the year they send a message.

Interestingly, in Birmingham, England, Ravi Subramanian, the regional director for Unison in the West Midlands, raised this very issue as an anti-union measure that had actually made his union branches stronger.  Faced with the 50% barrier in almost all the votes since it’s imposition, the union has prevailed.  Surprising the crowd, Brother Ravi boasted that the government could raise the bar to 70, 80, even 90%, and he was convinced workers would smash every barrier, and it would build the union even stronger.

He’s not asking for it, mind you, but he’s ready for whatever they throw at the union.  Good advice for organizers and union leaders everywhere.

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We Need More People’s History Museums!

Manchester      “The Organizer” was screening at the Friends Meeting House today, and the members and leaders of the newly organized ACORN branch in Manchester were working, so I had the opportunity to not only visit, but also observe and work from the People’s History Museum and The Left Bank café and bar.  What a great way to tell the story of people’s struggles for democracy in civic life and a voice in the workplace and political space.

Fittingly, the museum is located in the Spinningfield district, named for all of the spinning mills that heralded the Industrial Revolution virtually birthed in Manchester.  Additionally, signaling the working-class roots that made Manchester wealthy and imprinted the politics for years, the museum is retrofitted into an old pump house along the river with some remnants of its former life still visible. The museum was supported by labor unions in the United Kingdom, but also the European Union, national arts councils, and, importantly the Manchester City Council, but don’t think that diluted the message of the museum:  this is people’s history.

The museum had many, many strengths.  Viewers were encouraged to participate.  Pushing buttons meant hearing historic speeches by politicians of all stripes, union leaders, and others.  At one-point yellow police tape was on the floor and when I walked across the entryway and picket line chanting greeted me as it if I had cross the line during a strike, making the experience very realistic and dramatic.  Speckled throughout in various time periods visitors were encouraged to open suitcases to see what people might have being carrying or wearing at the time, or visitors could try on hats that union leaders and managers might have worn. Visitors could open cubbyholes to see whole exhibits.  Very smart!

The museum was also aided tremendously by dramatic visuals.  Sweeping and intricate banners made by early trades group for their meetings and demonstrations were as creative as tapestries we saw only days earlier in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.  Posters for demonstrations or political rallies both modern and one-hundred or more years old were fascinating and forceful.  The sections on the suffragette movement and the fight to win the vote for women in England were outstanding, especially the separate pride in Mrs. Pankhurst from Manchester, as they called their native daughter and key leader of the fight.

The development of political struggles from the Levellers and Chartists to the Communist and radical elements as well as the more mainstream Labour Party were well documented.  One amazing illustration on a wall running from floor to ceiling several stories up showed a timeline of British history and the various movements, strikes, demonstrations, and repression that marked the time to either victory or defeat.

Workers, women, and various voices were celebrated everywhere here, as well.  Critically, the museum was not simply about organizations, winners and losers, but the importance of struggle itself.  The People’s History Museum’s motto tellingly was: “There have always been ideas worth fighting for.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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