In Minnesota, public-sector workers building power from the inside out

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MAPE Local 801 member Victoria Hopwood speaks at a forum at the East Side Freedom Library about threats to public-sector unions.

They may no longer be on the brink of a Supreme Court-imposed Right-to-Work rule, but Minnesota’s public-sector union members aren’t celebrating. They’re organizing.

“What we got was a reprieve, not clemency – and surely not a pardon,” Education Minnesota attorney Meg Luger-Nikolai warned a standing-room-only audience of activists last night at the East Side Freedom Library, site of a forum on Friedrichs v. CTA .

In oral arguments last month, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority appeared in agreement on the case. Most observers predicted a 5-4 decision to overturn the 40-year precedent allowing public-sector unions to collect fair-share fees from workers who benefit from a contract but choose not to join the union.

While Justice Antonin Scalia’s death Feb. 13 may have changed Friedrichs’ short-term fate, the legal attacks on working people – bankrolled by big-moneyed, right-wing special interests – will only keep coming.

Bill Barry is author of “Closing Up the Open Shop: A Guide to Internal Organizing.”

Bill Barry is author of “Closing Up the Open Shop: A Guide to Internal Organizing.”

“Some people are breathing a sigh of relief, thinking we’re all set,” Maryland-based labor educator Bill Barry said. “We’re not all set.”

That message already seemed to have registered with the public-sector union members who spilled out from the library’s stacks last night.

The forum, planned before Scalia’s death, was billed as an opportunity to share strategies for maintaining strong unions if fair-share fees become illegal – a likelihood public-sector unions here have been anticipating since Scott Walker’s assault on collective bargaining in Wisconsin six years ago.

As members discussed how their unions might adapt to survive, there was no talk of letting up just because the Supreme Court’s makeup is in flux. Some even appeared to welcome the challenge.

“I think we can survive and thrive with a new membership-driven union,” said Carol Nieters, whose union, SEIU Local 284, represents 9,000 school support workers. “I think we can turn on its head what others think they can pull apart.”

Barry, who taught at the Community College of Baltimore County, preaches a similarly proactive approach in his latest book, “Closing Up the Open Shop: A Guide to Internal Organizing.” It offers up case studies from around the country in how workers have overcome Right-to-Work laws to build powerful unions.

“We’ve got to revive ourselves,” he said. “It’s no good talking about a problem without talking about solutions. We’ve got to go forward, and if we do it now, it’s going to make a stronger, better, more aggressive union.”

Barry advocated training and empowering stewards to do work often handled by union staff, engaging new members on Day 1 of employment and moving more of the union’s processes – like grievance filings and contract negotiations – into the open.

Panelists included (L to R) John Westmoreland of AFSCME Council 5, Brian Aldes of Teamsters Local 320, Carol Nieters of SEIU Local 284 and Ellen Olsen of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

Panelists included (L to R) John Westmoreland of AFSCME Council 5, Brian Aldes of Teamsters Local 320, Carol Nieters of SEIU Local 284 and Ellen Olsen of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

After Barry’s presentation, a panel of activists offered glimpses into their own unions’ internal organizing efforts.

John Westmoreland, a former prison guard who’s now assistant director of AFSCME Council 5, acknowledged that fair-share fees “made us lazy” in the past, but he said Friedrichs has sparked a new campaign to sign up 94 percent of the workers Council 5 represents.

“We’re engaging them where they work, everybody coming in the door,” Westmoreland said. “Once we complete this campaign, I won’t have to worry about the Supreme Court justices anymore.”

It’s a lofty goal, but one public-sector union members – and, likely, all union members at some point – will need to meet to keep a strong voice on the job.

“We should make a commitment,” East Side Freedom Library director Peter Rachleff said at the close of the forum. “We’re all going to come back here in six months and see how it’s going.”

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