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.


Building New Organizations in the Birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution

Ravi Subramanian, Unison regional director of the West Midlands

Birmingham    Depending on whether you are looking east or west, Birmingham is either the Chicago of the United Kingdom or Chicago is the Birmingham of the United States.  Carrying the analogy too far, Manchester is Cleveland to Birmingham’s Chicago.  I better stop.  The key point is that these are amazing, bustling cities with deep, historical roots as champions of the working class from Marx and Engels to coal miners, unions, and now regeneration as something else, though a little more uncertain of their direction and how to align it with their history.

Not surprisingly, ACORN now has vibrant chapters in both cities that are growing because of the strength of our members and leaders since we currently have not hit the membership numbers that would allow self-sufficient staffing.  We do have friends though.  Literally, the Manchester branch showed “The Organizer” in the huge Friends or Quakers Meeting Hall in the central city.  There were three other rooms having meetings at the same time we were and there were large occupied rooms downstairs, so there was no question that the Friends were meeting a need there.  We also had friends in Birmingham that are making all of the difference to our work and growth, particularly in the labor movement and especially Unison, the second largest union in the country, and its dynamic and visionary West Midlands regional director, Ravi Subramanian, in whose hall twenty-five of our members gathered to see the film and talk about ACORN and its work.

Sam Lowe gives the membership rap as Becca Kirkpatrick and Ravi Subramanian listen

After the ACORN leaders welcomed everyone, Brother Ravi made some important remarks.  More than the usual, “glad to see you here” and “nice to have some younger people in the hall,” Ravi was clear that his support and open arms to ACORN was based on the union’s own self-interest.  He wanted more activism in the community and in the housing blocks, because he argued that would create more activists in his union and, importantly, they would have experience in the crucible of conflict.  He wanted there to be more democracy and in a startling admission from a leader of institutional labor, he wanted more accountability.

After the documentary as questions were asked from one and all, Brother Ravi returned to the theme and more pointedly challenged ACORN and our tenants’ union to make recommendations to him for how he could make his union stronger and win great victories, and then called for a community-labor partnership of the kind we have often advocated.  He had laid out the challenge, and it was exciting to contemplate what our future might be in this big, brawling city.

tables is the screening in Birmingham

When one of our activist members dropped me at the train station, I called out, “I hope I see you soon!” as I looked for the door, and I meant it.  The roar of opportunity for lower income and working families drowned out the sound of trains as I entered the station.

screening in Manchester