More bad news for working families came out of Wisconsin yesterday, when Gov. Scott Walker approved so-called “Right to Work” legislation. But there was good news, too.
Nursing home workers in the small town of Luck, Wis., about 70 miles northeast of the Twin Cities, voted to form a union in election results certified by the National Labor Relations Board yesterday.
As a result, 57 certified nursing assistants, dietary workers, housekeepers and laundry workers at United Pioneer Home now are represented by Local 1189 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a union headquartered in St. Paul and Duluth.
The organizing drive began in January, after a handful of United Pioneer Home workers approached the union with concerns about insufficient staffing levels and workplace safety. Abraham Wangnoo, director of organizing for Local 1189, said workers reported being afraid to approach management with their concerns and were frustrated with the lack of respect supervisors showed them on the job. One worker who spoke up to management, he said, was dismissed as “just a maid.”
“People wanted a voice,” Wangnoo said. “When they had concerns, they wanted to be heard. This was a way they thought they could use one voice to speak about issues that affect their jobs and the (nursing home) residents’ lives.”
The organizing drive progressed quickly, and workers voted 25-14 in favor of union representation.
Now, United Pioneer Home becomes an early test of whether newly organized unions can survive in post-RTW Wisconsin. The new law allows workers to benefit from a collective bargaining agreement without paying for the cost of representation, making it illegal to collect fair-share fees from workers in an organized workplace who choose not to join the union.
When Local 1189 members and United Pioneer Home agree on a first contract, it will cover all 57 workers eligible to vote in the NLRB election, including those who voted against unionizing. All 57 will enjoy the benefits of the new contract, from grievance procedures and job security to safety protections and compensation increases.
But the cost of negotiating and servicing the new contract will fall entirely on the workers who choose to join the union and pay dues to Local 1189.
By gutting the resources unions rely on to represent workers, RTW generally undermines the appeal – and bargaining power – of organized labor in states that pass the law. But Wangnoo said Local 1189, which represents more than 650 workers in western Wisconsin, isn’t about to pull up stakes.
“We’re going to continue to do the best we can to be the best we can, so people really do see the value in what workers have done in organizing a union,” Wangnoo said. “We want them all to know that it pays to belong.”
That task becomes more difficult over time, as workers active in an organizing effort retire or take other jobs.
Wangnoo said Local 1189’s bargaining units in Wisconsin have elected union stewards who are dedicated to the kind of service and outreach work necessary to bring new members into the fold. Already, some workers who voted against the union at United Pioneer Home have expressed an interest in being involved in negotiations, he said.
“Our representation is what we’re going to count on for keeping the good, strong union density in these places that we need to maintain strong contracts,” he said. “I believe our record will speak for itself, and people will see the value in membership.”