Brits and Texans Agree – Attack Unions Where it Hurts – Dues Collection

union-yes-logoNew Orleans  Conservatives of all stripes and nationalities seem to have settled on a killer app for delivering a death blow to unions: block the dues collection mechanism!

Short memories will recall that earlier this year there were fierce legislative battles in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and elsewhere whose sole objective was to eliminate the ability of public employees to have their dues paid to unions or employee associations through payroll deductions from their checks. The legislation state by state was almost identical with small adjustments place to place only in severity and breadth. Some states exempted no public employees from state to municipal to schools. Others were more selective, like Texas, and tried to favor certain employee groups like police and fire. Most of the legislation was cranked out on the Koch brothers’ ALEC template. The objective was transparent: cripple unions.

Unions and their allies were both good and lucky in the 2015 legislative sessions and managed to block passage of most of these Wisconsin-wannabe measures. It’s not clear how long the streak can continue. The Texas Tribune reports that Texas Lieutenant-Governor Dan Patrick has already started loading up the big guns on this bill for the 2017 session, partially by making it an election primary issue for the committee chair that in his view botched the process preventing the bill from emerging for a vote in the recent session. Patrick is assigning the bill to committees in advance of the session so that it is stripped of any problems. Even the favored few public employee groups that escaped elimination last year seem likely to be on the chopping block in the coming bill. It’s a heckuva a way to build solidarity in the house of labor, although that may not be enough to save us.

The problem is that the Republicans hold the whip hand in Texas and many other southern and border states coming perilously close to the kind of daunting, no holds barred, no prisoners taken one-party rule that can be found in parliamentary government elsewhere. The recent victory of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom giving them majorities rather than a coalition government, has led them to propose amendments to the Trade Union Act that would eliminate all payroll dues deductions for any public employee group, hoping to decimate the membership of the largely public workers’ union, Unison, and other unions with public members that have long been the backbone of the Labour Party. There will be little that can stand in their way, and state by state we are facing a similar challenge in the United States now.

In Texas they are clear. This has little to do with the workers and whether they need or want union representation on the job. Proponents like the Lieutenant-Governor and his allies are clear this is all about making sure that unions have a depleted treasury and will be limited in the amount that they can donate politically to their opponents. It’s all about running the well dry. Workers and their unions are collateral, ideological damage standing in the way of naked political self-interest.

The clock is ticking for unions and even with Herculean efforts the damage will be extensive.

A Demand for Old School Union Reps: Arbitrations!

arbitrationNew Orleans  The New York Times has run a three-part series on the galloping trend of corporations, both large and small, overtly or slyly forcing consumers and even non-union workers to agree to arbitration procedures that block their access to courts and to joining with others in class action litigation on larger concerns. The stories are horrendous and unsurprisingly expensive, and thousands of words later there is no mystery to the bottom line that the deck is totally stacked for the corporations. Law school professors referred to the movement to arbitrations as the “privatization of the justice system.” And, like so much in our neoliberal world, too often it is the consumer bringing the complaint that ends up paying for the process rather than the company which is already saving money in legal fees and settlements that they would have incurred in courtroom proceedings.

Obviously this trend to excessive arbitration needs to be stopped, but in the classic way that an individual problem seems personal, rather than political, and given the corporate influence in converting so much of government into crony capitalism, it is hard to believe the Calvary is coming or that relief will make it to us soon. This level of rampant injustice speaks to a huge gap in accessible and affordable representation in these kinds of civil procedures where formal legal training and licensing is not required. There is a subset of the labor movement that might be able to meet some of this huge demand though. For all of the decades long battle to move the labor movement to an organizing culture, the “servicing” model still has huge and deep support and a generation of union staff that lived through the process has extensive experience in handling arbitrations, and that’s old school union reps. Where are they now that we really need them?

There are few local union staffers that have spent more than a year or two in service to the membership that have not been schooled in the hard knocks experience of written grievance procedures up to the point of formal arbitration hearings. Picking arbitrators, writing up the paperwork, preparing to argue the case with the member, and negotiating the settlement when one is available are all core skills that virtually all union reps have been forced to acquire. Most learn to do anything that they can to avoid arbitration because of the time and expense, but for many there is no choice and invariably arbitration can’t be avoided. To dissuade filings of job discrimination complaints, including by gender and race, the United Kingdom now requires the grievant to pay 1200 pounds or about $1500 to even file. The cost for unions like Unite, the largest in the UK, has been about 9 million pounds per year, since they pay the cost for their members, effectively reducing the income they have for anything else. A big union like SEIU’s 32BJ in New York does 2500 arbitrations annually with three arbitrators conducting hearing virtually five days a week. My point is simple: unions may not like arbitrations, but they know them like they know the back of their hand.

Is there a way to use all of that residual skill to fill the gap for tens of thousands that are caught in a bewildering process with the odds stacked against them and lawyers out of their price range? I would think training legal advocates and putting out the call for old school union reps with time on their hands and these skills in their heads, might be something worth all of us coming together to try and organize. God knows it’s needed!

Workers’ Committees

SomosUnPuebloUnido-RallyLittle Rock     Sometimes it helps to get a gentle reminder of what we know, but don’t always practice. At our union we live and breathe “majority unionism” by which we mean trying to organize as many workers as we can, in as many ways as we can, with or without demanding direct recognition or collective bargaining, but by trying to organize workers to be union members where they work to protect and advance themselves, act collectively, and build power on the job. Some people call this minority unionism because the union does not have exclusive representation rights on the job which are common in collective bargaining agreements in North America, though this strategy of direct membership recruitment is common in many countries around the world from France to India and beyond.

A piece by Steven Greenhouse, the former labor reporter and now freelancer for the New York Times, recently detailed the success that Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a 20-year old immigrant rights group was having in Santa Fe and elsewhere in New Mexico by assisting in organizing workers’ committees and winning important victories for workers in low wage and service industry jobs that are largely non-union, but desperately need protection and organization. The committee structure allows the workers to trigger the protections for collective action provided by the National Labor Relations Act for workers acting as a group that is not available to individually aggrieved workers. Few civilians realize that the NLRA offers virtually no protection for unions, but lots of protection for workers, especially when they are engaged in concerted activity.

Greenhouse quotes several experts on this score:

“A lot of people thought the National Labor Relations Act could be used only during unionization campaigns,” said Andrew Schrank, a labor relations specialist who recently became a professor at Brown University after teaching at the University of New Mexico. “They’re finding that the National Labor Relations Act is much more expansive than many people thought.” Richard F. Griffin Jr., the labor board’s general counsel, said a 1962 Supreme Court case — involving a spontaneous walkout because a factory was so cold — makes clear that the National Labor Relations Act protects nonunion workers, too. “It’s important that people understand that the law applies to all private sector workplaces and protects activity outside the context of union activity,” Mr. Griffin said.

Somos has put together a good track record using these tools thus far. They have filed charges with the Phoenix office of the NLRB in 12 cases, and 11 complaints of unfair labor practices were won for workers as diverse as carwash attendants, hotel housekeepers, and restaurant workers. Needless to say perhaps, Somos has won reinstatement for many of these workers along with backpay. Not only that but in many cases once the workers have organized they have also realized they were victims of wage theft and other labor violations leading to some six-figure settlements paid out to workers from employers for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act as well.

Supposedly other workers centers in other cities are taking a look at the Somos track record. For our part we’re glad to have fellow travelers after all of these years, and it helps us hew to this path of direct organizing to win power on the job now with or without the employer’s consent but using all the tools we have at our disposal from citizen wealth to direct unionization.

In my organizer’s Spanish I think Somos Un Pueblo Unidos means All the People United. It’s hard to imagine a better slogan for working men and women in any language.

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!


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.


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.

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