Municipal Workers’ Union Knows How to Make a Deal

Tunis      We had heard about Makrem Amairia, the head of the Municipal Workers Union branch of the larger, longstanding labor federation, UGTT, before we arrived at their building near the main boulevard running through the city of Tunis.  He had been quoted while leading a march of 2000 cleaners through the city last year demanding union recognition.  That sounded interesting.

We had several other reasons for wanting to meet with him as well.  Given the devolution of governmental powers from the central government to the municipalities and regional units, we were curious what that meant for a union in real life, rather than in the minds of parliamentarians and constitutional delegates.  We also knew that he headed the sanitation workers.  We knew the community was concerned from the outside, but given the health and safety impacts on the residents, a union worth its salt had to be worried about their members on the inside as well.  What would he have to say?

Quite a lot, actually, and with the union’s journalist and, lucky for us, translator, he was both welcoming, sincere, and smooth as silk.  Appraising him as a local union leader, I could tell he was someone who could be a great friend or a serious enemy, both qualities are often what makes a successful negotiator.

They were not a small local.  They had a national range.  They represented workers in 310 of the 350 municipalities in the country.  Candidly, he said they represented 35,000 workers and of that number had 28,000 dues-paying members.

Thom Yachnin asking questions

One of our delegation, Thom Yachnin, director of the organizing and legal department at BCGEU, the British Columbia Government Employees’ Union, honed in on the bargaining practice, asking whether they were able to conclude agreements with the cities or were they still having to negotiate with the Interior Department, like before the revolution.  The answer was sort of neither and both.  They negotiated what unions call local or plant-issues with the cities, but wages and fundamental changes to working conditions and legislation remained with Interior.  At the same time. they were trying to get cities to form a council of sorts with parliamentary action so they could engage in sectoral bargaining for all municipal employees with such a body and not Interior.  Smart move.  His answer was patient, so it was hard to tell how close they might be, but they are likely watching the upcoming parliamentary elections on this score.

Asking about the dump and the Bori Chakir community where our ACORN affiliate El Comita is organizing, he was deft in his response.  Yes, they would be interested in joining with us in common cause to find ways the workers and the community could push issues together.  Yes, he would be glad to meet our leaders from Bori Chakir.  He was clearly surprised that we had been there and knew the situation, asking several times for confirmation that we had been to Bori Chakir.  Certainly, they had ninety workers at the landfill, and they, like us, were very concerned about their health and safety, too.  He also shared insights from his negotiations with the city on these issues though saying two things.  First, that the dump pre-existed the community, and that people had moved there knowing they were moving next to a dump.  Secondly, they have negotiated a partial closedown of a section to see if practices could be altered.   This meeting will be interesting!

Having met with one of the smaller, new union formations earlier in the week, one of our delegation asked Amairia and his associate whether there was any joint-union collaboration on any issues, interests, or bargaining. The answer was classic, elegant, and masterful.  Yes, of course they believed in union pluralism.  Of course, they were willing to work with anyone, but they had not done so yet.  These unions come and go.  They knew nothing of their governance, dues structure, members, or stability.  There was no competition.  As these things settled, surely there would be relationships.

The translator finished with a smile and a shrug.  Had we been in the US, he might have brushed a piece of lint from his shoulder or in a larger meeting, dropped the microphone.

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Tactics and Strategies of the English Militant Suffragettes

Women's Social and Political Union in 1908

Dauphine Island         My friend and comrade, Mary Rowles, the organizing director of the British Columbia Government Employees Union (BCGEU) had recommended that I read Antonia Raeburn’s The Militant Suffragettes.  Thanks to the miracles of Amazon and the “long tail,” I was able to find a copy published in 1974 exclusively for the members of the United Kingdom’s Readers Union and available to them for four pounds.  Though 40 years ago doesn’t seem such a long time in some ways, the mannerly and reserved way the book is written seems to have arrived more than simply one other century away.   Written in the British vernacular for English readers familiar with the locations of London and the general United Kingdom geography, the book took some getting used to before I could really embrace its full merits, which turned out to be many when it comes to understanding the tactical toughness brought by these women to their struggle for the right for women to vote in the same way as men.   What is in some ways even more amazing is that the Suffragette Campaign and this very fundamental struggle was waged hardly a hundred years ago from 1904 to 1914 with the vote only finally being achieved as a war concession in January 1918.  Women finally got the universal vote in the United States, once again despite campaigns for many decades, as a war dividend, on August 20, 1920.

The militant wing was organized as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded and led by Emmeline Pankhurst along with her daughters after the death of Dr. Pankhurst who had been an advocate of women’s suffrage for years and author of several pieces of legislation dating to the mid-19th century, which had failed to pass despite wide support and petitions.  Mrs. Pankhurst’s WSPU was borne of the frustration that comes at the end of the chain, not the hope that comes with the fresh ideal and its moral rightness.  Furthermore, she and many of the leaders of the movement were “to the manor borne” in the sense that if not titled, they were well connected and came from solid professional and upper middle class circumstances in the main with all of the expectations of entitlements that come from such status.

The strategy though was expansive.  Their organizing focused on bringing in working class women, especially the numerous mill workers, and made huge efforts to expand throughout the country with a chapter structure and constant visitation by organizing “speakers.”  It was fascinating to read how smart and sensitive they were in organizing their base around what we now call “branding.”  Their marches, mass rallies, and demonstrations were filled with pageantry, their banners were everywhere, and their colors (violet, green, and white) became part of their uniform, their buttons, and their signposts.

But, their tactics were hard as nails and became more so as the campaign drew on.  In the early years it was fascinating how direct they were and how accessible government and elected leaders were even to protestors 100 years ago.  They would organize “doorknocking” actions, where “deputations” would literally seek to knock on the door of 10 Downing Street and engage the Prime Minister directly.  They would rise up to call for “Votes for Women” during the King’s Speech annually and massively disrupt the opening days of Parliament with crowds to women buttonholing office bearers as they ran the gauntlet through their numbers.  They would mobilize their members to chase down government officials at their summer homes, town houses, and on retreats and meetings routinely.  They specialized in disguises and sneak attacks that were clever, creative, and sometimes humorous.  There’s no way to read about these exchanges and not come away with firm views that Gladstone and Churchill, despite their vaunted reputations, were as caddish and ham-handed in handling suffragette movement and its protests as Indian Prime Minister Singh and Sonia Gandhi are in handling the protests today in Delhi.

To save printing costs rather than leaflet, they would have their members do “chalking” which meant to chalk the meeting notice on public sidewalks and other venues where the notices would be seen.  One tactic I loved took advantage of new technology offered then by the British postal service, they paid the price to send a “human message” directly to the Prime Minister, which meant that it had to be delivered by two of their members, who not surprisingly were denied a meeting once they gained entry to Downing Street.

Their reward for their disruptions was predictably arrests, and their members volunteered for what they called “danger duty,” where there was the understanding they would go to jail.  The hunger strike which was their most famous tactic was then triggered, since none of them would eat once they were jailed forcing the government to either insert a feeding tube or force feed them which was wildly controversial and polarizing, or let them go.  In 1913 and 1914, Mrs. Pankhurst was herself arrested 19 times and over the period of the campaign logged 9 hunger strikes.  One of their later deputations counted over 600 women in one section who represented by name and number the individual members of the WSPU who had been arrested.  As I said these were some tough sisters!   Their strategy was described by George Bernard Shaw as “eastern,” based on the principle that a man convinced of his rightness on a dispute would go to his enemy’s doorstep and refuse to eat until death, and if his enemy believed he was wrong, then he would allow him to die, but if his enemy agreed he was right, he would feed him.  For the women the principle was more plainly spoken.  Without the right to vote, they argued that no laws applied to them, since they were not a part of the passage of any of the laws.

Given that argument, every tactic became permissible and justifiable.   As various bills failed to make the floor or pass muster through conciliation committees or other attempts at resolving the constant conflict, the tactics became more militant and evolved to rock throwing, window breaking (including at #10 Downing Street!), and even arson.  Increased militancy guaranteed leadership conflict at the top of the WSPU, but the Pankhursts stayed their course at each turn.

They paid the bills through speaking tours and passing the hat through the crowd.  At one such event in London where Mrs. Pankhurst was speaking she raised 15,000 pounds from the crowd.  In 2012 US dollars that 1910 15000 pounds would be the equivalent to raising $696267 in one event!  Dues were important, but their real support came from subscriptions and sales of the organizational newspaper in its various forms over the years to their members and the public.

With the advent of WWI, the organization suspended militancy around women’s right to vote, and as the war ebbed the match of their earlier militancy, consistent leadership and support, continual lobbying, and strategic patriotism, finally secured them the vote.

George McGovern during his run-up to his race for President of the United States said at the time that “to be most radical, you had to appear most conservative.”  The militant English suffragettes seemed to have invented that concept by appearing to be the essence of English upstanding and matronly womanhood, and then hurling a stone through the window of a government building.

Where are these women when the world needs them now!

Mrs. Pankhurst Speaking to the Crowd
Mrs. Pankhurst getting arrested, one of many times.
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