Hand Collecting Dues is Very Difficult, Payroll Deductions Matter

fraternity-collection-agency-320x179Frankfurt      The latest word from insiders and lobbyists in Austin is that for the minute the bill to block all payroll deductions for public employees is bottled up in committee.Of course it could change in an instant.   The latest word from Baton Rouge has two bills that might have been primarily directed at teachers but seem to include all public  employees steaming ahead towards potential passage.   The rightwing, Republican assault on unions is in full flower.   Where right-to-work bills are not flourishing, either statewide or county by county in Kentucky or almost city by city in Illinois, and blocking all payroll deductions are not in vogue with Republican controlled legislatures, eliminating prevailing wages is also on the docket in a handful of states as well.

These issues matter.   Sure some can pay by bank draft, and that’s how all of our Texas and Arkansas members in Local 100 United Labor Unions are now being enrolled along with their payroll deduction, but it’s still harder, which is the point of the legislation after all.

I’m in route to Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad on my annual visit to India to spend time on the ground with ACORN’s organizers.   We have a lot to celebrate in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.   Our union of hawkers and other street sellers now has enrolled 35,000 members, 29000 of those in the last year.   It takes the breath away and speaks to the immense talent and hard work of Suresh Kadashan,   ACORN’s organizer there.

The problem for this visit though is how to more successfully solve the problem of collecting dues from our members so that we can grow to the next level and deepen the organization.  We are organizing informal workers without employers, so there is no possibility of any payroll deduction, because there is no payroll.   Our members live by their labor on a daily basis.   Our dues rate is deliberately set low, less than a dollar per month, but the trick is how to collect it from members in scores of markets and hundreds of streets in a half dozen cities in several states.

The organizing was done by hard working committees at the each market fanning out and enrolling the members with the organizer bouncing from place to place, training, coordinating, advising, and always moving the organization forward.   Practically speaking though the organizer cannot be the dues collector; there’s not enough time or space for one person to be routed to 35,000 every month.  As fast as the organization has grown since my last visit a year ago, there’s also not enough trust, market-to-market, baked into individual leaders to convince the members to cough up their hard earned rupees for dues, nor in the main are there bank accounts that might be drafted on the daily exchanges of hawkers in their all-cash business.   Construction trades for a century or more used hiring halls to control the flow of labor and handle dues collection, monitor work sites, and create jobs, but informal work needs no hiring hall.    It’s a job that requires hustling and with hawkers it’s largely stationery.   In fact our biggest campaigns revolve around protecting market locations and viability.

If it’s not hard enough to organize unions in the first place and get to scale and density in the second place so the union has real power, now we have the problem of sustainability. We have our work cut out for us!

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My Liftin’ Days Are Done ( Boilermakers Lament ) by  Rusty Rivets

NLRB Looking at Free Rider Pay-to-Play Dues Obligation

duesNew Orleans     The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) took a step that might be small, but at least seems in the right direction.  They have solicited legal briefs, and no doubt there will be many from both the union and management side of the bar, on the question of dues or fee obligations for nonmembers in private sector employment who are represented by the union in grievances and disputes.  This may seem like a small thing to the general public, especially since so few workers are now represented by unions in the private sector, hardly more than one in twenty, but the amount that it rankles anyone who understands the issue is huge.  This problem also only affects the subset of workers in the half of the United States that live in right-to-work states which means even fewer of those workers, but that’s still a big number.

Nonetheless, here’s the contradiction involved in right-to-work states under the current practice and operating assumptions of the National Labor Relations Act.  When a union is certified after an election or by demonstrating a clear majority of support from the workforce and achieving voluntary recognition from an employer, the only thing a union
really “wins” are the rights to attempt to bargain a contract over a twelve-month period, if done in good faith, and the fact that the employer cannot legally challenge the union’s majority for that period.  The union under US labor law is the “exclusive representative” of all of the bargaining unit workers.All individual deals that an employer might try to cut with a worker, no matter how favorable, are illegal, because of the exclusivity of the union’s representation.  Any issue involving wages, working conditions or terms and conditions of employment must be exclusively handled through the union.

If a collective agreement is negotiated successfully, which believe it or not, does happen sometime, maybe in fact about half of the time, then whether in a so-called right-to-work state or a union-shop state, the union under US law continues to be the exclusive representative of all of the workers, regardless of whether the worker decides to join and pay membership dues or in non-right-to-work states pay an agency fee that is less than membership dues, but is mandatory if successfully bargained in the contract.  In right-to-work states though because the union is the exclusive representative, they have a “duty of fair representation” for each worker, regardless of their membership, and here’s where the wound cuts deeply.  If a nonmember has a beef and it is legitimate, the union has the obligation to pursue justice for that worker just as they would
for any dues paying member all the way through arbitration which can cost thousands of dollars.  These workers are called “free riders,” because the other workers who are paying dues are financing the union and paying for them to get a fair deal even while that worker is shirking any dues payment obligations.  Clearly this is unfair all the way
around and, worse, the stories of it crippling entire local unions are legendary, and the number of DFR or duty of fair representation cases filed before the NLRB on such cases are numerous.  Talk about false entitlements!

Professors commenting on the NLRB’s initiative are already clear that there is nothing in the Act or elsewhere that has ever barred some form of fee payment for members in right-to-work states who are accessing union services.  If there is no legal bar to instituting a new system, then we’re only left with the ideological and class objections that divide labor and management, so nothing new there under the sun.  Even righting this contradiction and injustice won’t change the predicament that unions find themselves in, but it least unions would have a fair system in the workplace and a better shake representing private sector workers, no matter where they live in the country.

A fix here will at least take the biggest devil out of the details of a union representing all the workers equally and exclusively.

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Turner Corn – Remember November

Coordinated Attack on Public Workers and Unions in Texas and Oklahoma

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHouston           The headlines on the attack on workers and their unions has recently been written in the Midwest.  An attempt to follow-up in Wisconsin on the stripping of union protections for public workers now finds the legislature there pile driving a so-called right-to-work bill that would strip unions of vital resources for representation requirements and services.  Having spent hours in the Houston Local 100 office poring over a bill introduced in this session of the Texas legislature that could, if passed, and if passed in the current form, attack public workers at all levels state, counties, cities, and schools by eliminating any authority for payroll dues deductions for workers to their unions, it is important to realize that some of the highly publicized fights are just the tip of the iceberg as these concerted union attacks continue below the water line to eviscerate unions in areas of the country where workers are most beleaguered.

The New York Times reported a story recently about the coordinated efforts of many Republican controlled state legislatures to use a “preemption” strategy at the behest of industry and particularly the Koch Brothers’ funded ALEC conservative bill-writing factory to take away governing discretion at the local level that Republican business donors were finding obnoxious.  The headline cases were the Denton, Texas city council outlawing fracking there down to whether or not the Fort Worth Mayor and Council could regulate the environmental damage from plastic bags.  The story cited the longstanding preemption efforts in many states to eliminate the ability of cities to set their own minimum wage standards that began in the 1990’s with the Local 100 and ACORN’s ballot measure in Houston to raise the minimum wage as well as in New Orleans and Denver.  Of course New Mexico, where cities have continued to retain that right, is a heavily targeted area for business now.

Perhaps we should not have been surprised in this dark and polarized climate to find bills with identical numbers introduced in both Texas and Oklahoma that would eliminate all abilities for worker requests for payroll dues deductions to be honored by public employers.  The Oklahoma bill is only different from Texas in the fact that it is plainer spoken and just waves the mighty wand of the state to make all deductions disappear.  In Texas, the language meanders around trickier pathways because there is more to unravel since some cities, particularly Houston, have opened the door to more direct negotiations with the HOPE coalition of city unions connected to SEIU and AFSCME, and they wanted to tiptoe a bit more around police and fire unions that bankrolled some of their buddies.  Nonetheless, talking to our Austin-based attorney, Doug Young, every time we thought we might have found some wiggle room, he pointedly assured us it was legally locked down tighter than a bank vault.

Of course if something as draconian as these bills passes and becomes law, there are recourses in court based on the first amendment and our freedoms of association and the equal protection measures that frown on discrimination of our organizations, but that means years in court and uncertain results.  One outcome will be certain, if such overreaching legislation is approved, there will be even weaker unions in states that are already notorious for the weakness of unions.

I am reminded of two things.  One is the way that business and industry used a Lake Charles oil refinery strike to raise the temperature enough to win right-to-work legislation in Louisiana in 1976, and now the fact that the same effort is underway in the oil patch states while oil refinery workers are on a very well run and smart strike around safety conditions throughout Texas, Louisiana, and other states.  The other thing that hits hard is my own advocacy of wider worker organization using direct dues collection outside of employer permissions to build strong and sustainable organizations like our 35,000 member union of hawkers in Bengaluru and Chennai in India.

Nonetheless it is one thing to have alternative organizing and dues collection methodology.  It is quite another to be forced in that direction with no alternatives, and that seems to potentially be our future in the current anti-union assaults in the southwest, and likely throughout the southern states.

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Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade” Live at the WGA Writers Strike (some explicit content)

Rallying for $15

10478188_731954839698_3276092294241401119_nBirmingham, England      Before catching a plane for the UK, I went down with fifteen Local 100 United Labor Unions members and supporters with our t-shirts on to join the New Orleans piece of the national rally and demonstrations for raising wages to $15 per hour for fastfood and other workers in the US. We met in the parking lot of the new Whole Foods grocery store in New Orleans on Broad Street in Mid-City, no small irony there, since they are not the best on wage issues by a long shot, but they are at least smart enough to look the other way when 50 people are mustering in their parking lot.

Our crowd was pretty typical of what has become the “new normal” for these kinds of events around the country. A smattering of union activists from the local labor council, AFGE, and others who were in town to help with the endgame of the Landrieu election for Senate were there. There were some red-shirts saying Unite HERE for the local union. There were shirts identifying a local immigrant rights organization and one saying Legalize Arizona from the marches there several years ago, a t-shirt and action I was proud to participate in as well. There were some shirts calling for $15 per hour, who I assume were a combination of local and out-of-town SEIU folks but none of us knew any of them other than the national campaign organizer assigned to New Orleans who had convened the meetings that had brought all of us there. Perhaps there were two or three workers from McDonald’s and other fast food operations. One spoke briefly before we marched over to the McDonald’s on Canal Street next to the RTA Building named after A. Philip Randolph, the former legendary head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. There weren’t many civilians. This was a labor-for-labor rally.

It was a gorgeous December day in New Orleans with temperatures in the 70’s, so t-shirt weather all the way. There was some whispering before we began about the fact that contrary to earlier claims, four workers had been fired the previous year for their participation, three days after the annual rallies. Nonetheless, we were encouraged to parade individually through the store. It was all good-spirited with whoops and chants and whatnot. Many were surprised and confused to read the news reports later that some people had been arrested since this had somehow happened off to the side or after the main column had gone on about their business.

On the whole this is all good stuff. We need to have unions and union activists standing up for lower waged workers, especially given the tenuousness of their employment. Advocating for higher wages for workers is 100% the business of unions, and given the frozen minimum wage, fast food workers are good poster people for the campaign. A portrait of a leader of these actions from Kansas City profiled in the New York Times was inspiring. This is decidedly not about unionizing these workers, nor a strike in any way, but none of that should detract from the fact that it’s the right thing to do, and we all should do our part.

UAW Embracing Opportunity a “Patient” Strategy in the South

Employees of the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala. sign up to be the first members of a new, local UAW union at the Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa. (Stephen Dethrage | AL.com)

Employees of the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala. sign up to be the first members of a new, local UAW union at the Hotel Capstone in Tuscaloosa. (Stephen Dethrage | AL.com)

Paris    I spent hours in London in very interesting discussions about how community organizing and worker organizing could more effectively blend together to produce growth and power in both areas. This is exciting stuff. Large unions in the United Kingdom are gradually embracing the potential of community organizing though not quite sure what to make of it, or how to fully utilize its tools and strength. Despite this huge innovative push in the community they face a constant temptation – and pressure — to fall into the established patterns and protocols of the institutional labor experience, even as they try to sort out how to build something new and different. In the workplace they are still looking at how to meld the programs together. This is hard and important work, and it was exciting to be part of the conversation.

When we talked about other bold, new organizing, invariably the $15 per hour, Fast Food Forward push, is a topic of conversation and the buzz is loud and lingering. Activists in unions in the UK would like to see similar initiatives, whether they fully understand the situation in the states or not. Talking about the problem of “zero” contracts can produce instant depression.

When asked where else I thought they should look, I suggested they follow more closely what the UAW was doing in Chattanooga in moving forward with “members-only” representation for their newly chartered local at the Volkswagen plant there, where they have now crossed the majority in membership and are pressing for negotiations on work conditions in the plant. Later I caught up with the news that the UAW has chartered another local union with the same “majority unionism” strategy, but this time in Alabama at the giant Daimler Mercedes-Benz plant there, which I’ve driven by many times between New Orleans and Atlanta, and has been a UAW organizing target for more than 15 years. They announced that they were moving to sign up a majority of the workforce and in fact would ask for recognition at the time they reached that level.

A labor member of the Daimler board was at the announcement and was encouraging, adding that the Alabama plant was the only company facility in the world without some form of worker representation. The Mercedes situation seems like a sure deal with the additional news that must have crushed the souls of some of the old school Alabamans if they also saw that the UAW Secretary-Treasurer was also elected vice-president of “Daimler’s global works council, a committee consisting of both labor and company leaders. His presence marks the first time an American union leader has ever served on the council.”

These are giant breakthroughs not just in organizing transplants or in the South, but in embracing the ability to organize patiently to victory without being bogged down in one set of tactics or concerns about “exclusivity” or the final agreement. Importantly,

Kristin Dziczek, a labor expert with the Center for Automotive Research, said the local chapter in Tuscaloosa will help give the UAW more visibility on the ground with its members engaging in local activities and building support from within the community. “It’s a patient strategy,” she said. “This kind of knits them into the community.”

This is what can be built by a community-labor organizing model that looks at the future of the labor movement, rather than remembering how the work was done in the past. Everyone, not just my friends in London, should watch all of this carefully.

Marching for a Climate Change Turning Point

2014-09-21t181449z_242980738_gm1ea9m064l01_rtrmadp_3_usa-climatechange-march.jpg_1718483346New Orleans    The march in New York demanding action on climate change was hard to get a handle on from a distance.  The Associated Press called the number 100,000.  The New York Times studiously avoided ever giving a number in the aftermath of the march, simply saying there were tens of thousands.  Finally, a week later the Times’ editorial page tagged the number at 300,000.  Between police, press, promoters, and regular people, it’s very difficult to get a handle on facts when it comes to organizing, and when we are looking for the heartbeat of a movement, it’s actually not just a question of engineering, but a way to measure passion, so it is actually very important.  So many mainstream institutions and media are so punctilious about not seeming to support protest that it is virtually impossible to benchmark the truth as opposed to the promotion.

            Talking to Dean Hubbard, national director of the Labor Project for the Sierra Club, on Wade’s World on KABF recently, opened up a different perspective.  Dean said they were astounded by the numbers.   They had expected 100,000 in New York City, but instead they thought the numbers had topped 400,000.  We’ll never know.  He argued, perhaps more interestingly, that the wider footprint of the march could be found in the hundreds of cities throughout the USA that did something on that date and the thousands of cities, large and small, that stepped up to the mark globally.

            President Obama seemed to have used some of this energy to argue more aggressively for action, not only in the USA, which as the worst of the worst, has to be a leader here, but also to challenge China to join the fight as the largest bulk polluter even though we are the greatest per capita polluter.  India, the next in line, seems still unwilling to join the fray.

            It’s Dean’s job to argue that the fight between jobs and the environment is finally reaching détente, and he made the case as best he could, and there’s merit to his argument.  His weakest point might have been the fact that there were 10,000 marchers under union banners in New York City, led by some predictable unions like the Service Employees, but also importantly the giant Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electricians, a critical chink in the armor of the construction trades which have been stubbornly resistant to many environmental arguments with a “jobs are everything” and the devil take the hindmost attitude.  Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that he supported retrofitting all of the buildings in New York City before he personally joined the march, was a key piece of leadership moving the NYC trades.

            Where Dean and the Sierra Club’s case improved was as he recited the increasing amount of alternative energy development that is replacing standard generation methods, and the number of jobs that are, and will be, produced by such construction, energy creation, and distribution.  It seems impossible to argue whether on the threat of climate change or the ticking time bomb of contemporary resource depletion that no matter the math now or the facts on the ground, that the tide of history is now flowing in the direction of Dean’s argument with the opponents cries simply being the gurgles of dinosaurs on their way to extinction, hopefully not bringing the rest of us with them.