Category Archives: Worker Rights

West Virginia Strike

For most of us, the strength of the labor movement in the United States has been steadily declining for our entire lives. The monumental victories of the first half of the 20th century (the 8 hour day, closed shop union contracts, unemployment insurance, etc.) have been under attack and for many workers these fundamental rights have been all but eroded. With the loss of union power we have also lost the methods and tactics of struggle that made those victories possible in the first place.

That is why the recent strike of the West Virginia teachers union is so important. Not only were they able to win the 5% pay increase they were fighting for in the era of “right to work”, they did it by returning to the rank and file militancy of the past. In order to win their strike the teachers had to defy state law as well as their own union leadership and in doing so they reminded us all of where our true power lies: with the rank and file and on the job.

The strike in West Virginia began with the blessing of the statewide teachers union leaders. Frustration had been boiling over among teachers across the state for years. Teachers in West Virginia in 2016 were the 48th lowest paid in the country, the average salary being around $45,000. Wages were not keeping up with rising healthcare costs and cost of living. A vote was taken and a work stoppage began on February 22nd, closing schools in all of West Virginia’s 55 counties.

From the beginning the strike was dynamic and explosive. Union members didn’t simply sit back and wait for the leadership to tell them to act, they took matters into their own hands. A rank and file Facebook group was started that quickly grew to 20,000 members voicing their frustrations and updating teachers in other parts of the state about unfolding events. The teachers had broad demands which brought in other public sector employees in West Virginia who supported them on the picket lines.

It is this strategy of action and solidarity that made it possible to continue the strike even after the official union leadership called for it to end. After the leadership struck a deal that was unacceptable to the membership they didn’t hang their heads and go back to work, they continued the strike as a “wildcat”. A “wildcat” is a strike that is called without the approval of the local, national or international union leadership. This tactic was common in the past and crucial to the strength of the labor movement in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s but has been suppressed and forgotten in more recent years.

In the end the teachers won a 5% pay increase which was approved not just for teachers but for all State employees. They did it by remembering the lessons of the past, not just the lessons of the labor movement but other movements of working people like the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s as well.

That lesson is this: the rules are often written not for us, but against us. They are written by politicians who line their pockets with donations from big business. They are written by companies that want to drive down wages and erode conditions to maximize their profits. They are written by so called union leaders who want to advance their own career no matter the expense to the workers they are supposed to represent.

But these rules are also arbitrary. They exist only as long as we let them exist and they can be overcome when we realize the power of our solidarity. This is what we are going to have to do if we want to rebuild a powerful labor movement that can defeat attacks like “right to work”.

There is an analogy that I think best illustrates this point. To a lion, the whip of the lion tamer seems too powerful to overcome. The lion might believe that for weeks or even for years, and during that time he will do what the lion tamer says. But we know that the lion is much greater than the whip, and the tamer knows this as well. All the lion has to do is realize it.

Quantity vs Quality

Or is it Organize vs Represent?

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, like the majority of unions, has a tremendous focus on organizing workers into their Union under the premise of building market share. With new membership comes a greater share of the market, increased dues collection, and increased worker strength in contract negotiations. These characteristics hold true in an environment where employers are forced to be closed shops. Meaning that all of their workers who fall under the scope of the contract agreement with the Union, are required to be dues paying members.

In Right to Work (RTW) States, organizing an employer does not necessarily mean that all of the members will pay their fare share, and the ability to keep an employer signatory to a contract agreement is in constant peril. RTW States do not require employees to pay their fair share and they have recertification procedures which create huge hurdles for the Unions who are operating there. This dynamic leads Unions in these locals to the question of how to attract workers and win them over to being full dues paying members.

Do you focus your energy on Organizing new workers to account for attrition, or do you develop higher quality representation to turn those workers into dependable members?

If the 9th District Progress meetings of the past have been any indicator, the focus is on organizing new members and signing new contractors. All of the metrics which account for “progress” in the 9th District are focused on the organizing success and or failure of the constituent Locals. Numbers reflecting member engagement, such as participation levels at meetings or during votes, are absent from the powerpoint presentations and speakers. The focus on Organizing is of seeming paramount importance in the struggle against member attrition and market share development.

Unfortunately, this focus on organizing will not hold up when RTW makes its way into the remaining states which have yet to adopt it. When workers are given a choice of paying dues or not they will ask themselves, “What am I getting for my money?”. Currently the answer to this question is ultimately a lack of representation, an unenforced contract, and more organized workers to compete against for the next job. How many times have you seen a representative come out to your workplace when an election wasn’t right around the corner? Are the terms of the agreed to contract violated on a daily basis, by you, your coworkers, and or your employer? We need as many workers as we can get right now, so the third item listed above doesn’t play out currently, but be assured some will be thinking about it when times get lean again.

According to http://www.ibew46.org/our_team.html there are currently seven representatives in Local 46 for 5200+ members. That is over 740 members for every 1 representative. It is not possible for the number of representatives that we have, to be able to handle this many members effectively. The current membership is under represented, and there is an underlying resentment for paying dues without a justifiable level of representation on the jobs. This does not appear to be changing dynamic either, as the number of unpaid representatives (Stewards) remains in the single digits, and as the Leadership is focused on extending Organizing dues for another three years. The current representation model that has been implemented will be hard pressed to keep those that are concerned about being represented paying dues when RTW becomes a reality. There will be a dramatic cut off in the amount of dues collected as the membership is disenfranchised with the level of representation, tired of unenforced contracts, and fearful of having to compete with more workers for the same jobs.

Ultimately, the members are the customers that the Hall is in place to provide services for. The Hall has agreed to provide members with contract enforcement through representation and job opportunities through organizing. If the product that the Hall is producing only includes job opportunities, then the members who are buying for representation, will stop paying dues when given the choice. They will question what is the point of paying dues to an organization which is focused on bringing in more workers for them to compete against, when the Hall won’t provide significant representation and fight for the fair treatment of the members they currently have.

The end product of Local 46 has been too focused on organizing and needs to shift to representation as its primary focus. RTW is on the horizon whether workers and their unions want it or not. If the Local continues to focus the majority of its dues on organizing, then it will not be able to provide justification for those that question the level of representation they are buying with their dues payments. To remain competitive and to keep the funding up so LU 46 can afford to pursue organizing efforts, they must increase representation and turn the focus to customer satisfaction. The membership must become the primary focus of their Hall, and the quality of the representation must be increased substantially to keep them.

The costs of providing representation at levels more reasonable than 740 to 1, does not have to be substantial. There is a huge opportunity to drastically change the amount of representation that the membership experiences by simply appointing Stewards. At the time of this writing there is 7-8 currently appointed stewards for the Inside Wire unit of LU 46. There is way more than 7-8 job sites, which leaves thousands of members without daily representation on their jobs. By appointing Stewards, the Business Manager of LU 46 could show the membership that he too is concerned about providing the membership the representation it deserves, while keeping costs in check by hiring more and more staff to try and address the issues.

IBEW LU 46 should appoint Stewards on every job possible, and put more of the memberships dues money into providing the representation they are paying for.

Local Solidarity

In this month’s copy of Labor Notes, there is a quiz and discussion in the “Steward’s Corner” about assessing the risk of the impact Right To Work (for less) could have on your Local Union. The survey and discussion revolve around the relationship between the leadership at the Hall, representatives, stewards, and the membership. The survey is only 10 questions, but the answer for every question in regards to Local 46 was one of the two worst possibilities. For example:

“What happens when a workplace problem arises that affects many people?”…

  • (a) Members are too afraid or unaware of their rights to file a grievance, much less take collective action.
  • (b) Members call for help, but the union representative doesn’t act.
  • (c) Members call for help, and the union representative files a grievance.
  • (d) Members call for help, and the union representative works with them to make an action plan.

My answer to this question is in bold. This is just one of the 10 questions, but they all have a similar tone and they all illustrate a lack of support from the Hall. Our Local is in serious trouble when it comes to building solidarity with the membership and while we get to experience the short term repercussions of this on a daily basis, we are setting ourselves up for long term issues that could break our union if RTW finally comes to be established in Washington State.

The number of people who are not participating in our Local should be taken as a sure sign of the number of members we are at risk of losing when RTW gives them the option to stop paying dues. Around 20% of the membership are participating in our Local’s elections, that leaves 80% of the members with their hands up saying what difference does it make.  If even half of these members take that thought a step further and instead say, “why should I pay for this?”, then we are going to be in serious trouble.

We cannot sit back and hope that the election will bring a change in our leadership which will lead to increased solidarity. We have to start demanding it from the representatives in our Hall, and from our fellow brothers and sisters in the field. Let us demand that the Hall take our concerns seriously and get them out to our jobs so we can show them the issues in person.

If we don’t build solidarity in this Local, we will not only continue to lose the short game, but we will lose the long one as well.

 

Strength of Solidarity

When faced with adversity the first instinct people tend to have is to stand up for themselves and then look for people in a leadership role to help them. Whether that is a parent, supervisor, an officer, or in our case typically a representative. Unfortunately, when the adversity is coming from that authority figure it can seem like an impossible challenge to overcome when taking it on alone.

Our leadership presented us with a 45000 hour requirement to be able to retire. It was the strength of individual members speaking out during meetings, and ultimately a growing show of solidarity by members going to the Hall in force to show that we were not going to take this weakening of our pension without a fight.

Tosh may claim in the future how he won a reduction to 35000 hours, but don’t forget, he was ready to settle at 45000 back in October. It was the Membership standing together that won the reduction!

In the next fight we have, let us look back on this and know that we can win when we stand together!

Where is the Rank & File?

Granted, this post is being made ahead of the meeting tonight, but our past turnout shows that there is little involvement by the membership. There has been no effort by the Hall to organize the Rank & File, and CORE 46 is still trying to make inroads with the most vocal, there will be a low turnout tonight as well.

Unfortunately, members have been led to believe that they should just rely on the Leadership they have elected at the Hall to protect their interests. Whose responsibility is it really though? The Leadership is acting on what they believe is in the best interest of the membership from their perspective, NOT from yours! The members need to hold the Leadership of our Local accountable, and push them in the direction that serves the membership first.

Time and again, the members put in motions which are ignored by our Leadership. This type of leadership is what causes members to say “What is the point? The Hall will do it anyway!” Do you really think they would if the membership was holding its own rallies or pickets in front of the offices of both the Local and NECA? Don’t try and pretend that the pension issues are just from NECA. Tosh told the membership not to put more than $1 into the pension even though the Actuary said we needed $1.83.

It is actually the last raise allocation which is now being cited as the reason we are not being given a 30,000 hour retirement option. The membership “choose” to only put $1 into the pension even though the Actuary said more was needed. Yea, and this was done at the “advise” of your Leadership.

We need to organize the Rank & File, and the Hall isn’t going to do it. If we don’t do it, we should expect to continue to give up more benefits and get lousy contracts.

Building Trades Call To Action

The Washington Building Trades has issued a Call To Action in response to the recent introduction of Senate Bill 5692, Right To Work (for less).

At this time, we are asking ALL construction union members living in and around Spokane to call Senator Baumgartner’s office at 360-786-7610, after 6:00pm once every day through, and including Tuesday February 7 (or until the bill is removed from the agenda ​ ), and tell him you are Opposed to Right to Work Senate Bill 5692.

Here is the full text of the notice that was released.

#UnionStrong #FightBack