The fight for our unions can’t wait

February 28, 2018

SW rounds up reports from a national day of action over the anti-union Janus case.

IN CITIES across the U.S., union members and activists turned out for the "Working People's Day of Action" on February 24.

The day of action was meant as a show of opposition against a harsh attack on organized labor--in the form of the Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 case that was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

If the right-wing majority of justices rules as expected, public-sector unions would be barred from collecting "fair share" representation fees from workers who are covered under a union contract, but aren't members of the union. This would starve public-sector unions of financial resources and undermine the ability of teachers, nurses, and other public-sector workers to collectively bargain.

Drawing in larger issues of economic and social justice, the rallies also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike--remembered today as Martin Luther King Jr.'s last struggle before he was assassinated.

Confusingly, the labor-sponsored call for the rallies nationally barely mentioned the Janus case. Instead, it called for an "end to the rigged economy" and to "stand up for the freedom of working people to come together and fight for decent and equitable pay for our work, affordable health care, quality schools, vibrant communities and a secure future for all of us."

Thousands rally in New York City to resist the attacks on public-sector unions
Thousands rally in New York City to resist the attacks on public-sector unions (nylecet | Facebook)

These are definitely worthy goals, but given the crisis facing labor with the Janus case, much more needs to be done to show labor's opposition.

While spirited, even in large cities with an active union movement, turnouts for the rallies was mostly modest.

Ironically, in Supreme Court's hearing, Illinois' solicitor general argued in favor of preserving public-sector unions' right to collect an agency a way of keeping them weak! "There are plenty of studies that show that when unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational."

No one should count on that. Labor's response to Janus will require much larger, militant and sustained organizing efforts, both in the workplace and beyond.

In Chicago, as many as 2,000 union members and supporters of organized labor gathered at Daley Plaza, following a rally of some 200 organized by the Chicago Teachers Union at Federal Plaza earlier in the day.

The Daley Plaza demonstration turned out teachers, firefighters, health care workers and more, and featured James Riley, a Memphis sanitation worker in 1968 who marched with Martin Luther King.

"Our freedom is under attack," said Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan, adding, "Governor Bruce Rauner and his wealthy CEO friends have been leading an all-out assault on working men and women for years. We are here to unrig the system."

But it's not only Republicans like Rauner who are attacking unions and working people in Illinois. In Chicago, the austerity agenda has been driven by Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has systematically gutted public schools and attempted to cheat teachers and our communities out of what they deserve.

"We're here because the workers' struggle is an important struggle for all of us," said Bassam Kawar of the United States Palestinian Community Network. "We're fighting the Trump agenda, the Rahm agenda...This is a struggle for all of us."

Erin Young, a special education teacher and a delegate in the Chicago Teachers Union, said she came to the rally "to stand up for labor rights and against the 'work for less' movement, which is about disenfranchising people all over this country and lowering wages."

Edwina Williams, an early childhood educator at the City Colleges of Chicago and member of Cook County College Teachers Union Local 1600, made the connection between the fight for labor rights and the fight for immigrant rights.

"I'm fighting the good fight for my parents, who are bilingual parents, immigrants to this country," Williams said. "They have a right to education."

In New York City, as many as 3,000 union members and supporters rallied at Foley Square in lower Manhattan. Large numbers of teachers, city workers, adjunct faculty, transit workers and every shade of public employee were at the rally, organized in contingents from different unions.

While the speakers from the front of the crowd spoke out against the looming Janus decision, some members of the audience were confused that their unions' communications around the day of action didn't actually reference the case.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also spoke from the stage, garnering a fair amount of "boos" from rally attendees, many of whom have felt the brunt of fiscal austerity at the bargaining table during Cuomo's years in office.

While large public-sector unions, including the Civil Service Employees Association, New York State United Teachers and AFSCME DC 37 had a sizable presence, there were also many private-sector union members, with organized local contingents, drawn heavily from the building trades and different Teamsters locals from the tri-state area.

In Columbus, Ohio, thousands braved the cold and rain to attend a rally organized by AFSCME, the Ohio Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), among others.

It was the first statewide rally involving multiple unions since the 2011 struggle against Gov. John Kasich's draconian, anti-union Senate Bill 5, which also attacked the right of public-sector workers to collectively bargain. Union activists ultimately won a referendum campaign to repeal the law.

Anders Miller, a high school English teacher, explained why he came to the rally: "I think that we need to ensure that our teachers are supported, because if our teachers are supported...that means that they are able to support our students."

Paul Smithberger, representing United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1059, explained that private-sector workers also have something to lose if the attack on public-sector unions succeeds: "The 'right-to-work' movement [and] stripping collective bargaining rights away from anyone, is a problem. This doesn't affect us yet, but it could, and even if it didn't, we're here to support our fellow union people."

In Washington, D.C., an estimated 1,500 labor activists, representing a broad array of unions, gathered at Freedom Plaza, two blocks from the White House.

In addition to AFSCME trade unionists, there were members of nearly two dozen unions, including postal workers, teachers, nurses, transportation workers, Teamsters, members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and many others.

Chris Shelton of the CWA stressed the need to make the Supreme Court know that this is a war workers are ready to fight.

Other speakers made the connection between the efforts of corporations to crush organized labor and the fight for social justice. One speaker from the American Federation of Government Employees observed that African American women comprise 18 percent of the public-sector workforce and face double discrimination due to both race and gender.

One speaker, an immigrant from El Salvador who is active in UNITE HERE, expressed outrage that the U.S. government had financed war in Central America and brought economic ruin to the people there, while also attacking immigrant and labor rights at home.

In Philadelphia, more than 1,000 people sporting signs and union jackets from more than 20 unions rallied across from City Hall.

The crowd included teachers from both the AFT and National Education Association (NEA), transit workers, gas workers, and city and federal workers. At least six construction unions were represented, as well as the CWA and rail, refinery, hospital workers and other unions. At one point, hundreds of marching and chanting members of SEIU arrived from a rally at Independence Mall.

Other organizations like the New Sanctuary Movement and the Sierra Club drew the connections to broader struggles, including the fight for immigrant rights and the environment.

Rank-and-file airport worker Onetha McKnight recounted how the fight to be organized has doubled wages to $12 per hour. Airport workers are negotiating their first contract with the SEIU, and are fighting for benefits as well.

McKnight finished by leading the crowd in a chant: "We chose unions."

In San Diego, a crowd of about 500 rallied outside the California Democratic Party convention. The demonstration was made up of union members from SEIU, the Teamsters, AFSCME, public education unions, and various other progressive groups.

Delegates from the Democrats' convention, suits emblazoned with stickers for their chosen candidates, moved in and out of the rally throughout the speeches.

The convergence of the rally with the Democratic convention brought up the contradictory relationship between them, and the fact that much of labor leadership continues to insist that the Democrats will rescue unions.

Union members at the rally said that organizing must continue. "No matter what the courts decide, we will rise," said Crystal Irving, a social worker in SEIU Local 221. "We will rise against the millionaires and the corporate system."

Kisha Borden of the San Diego Education Association highlighted the responsibility educators have in fighting for their students learning conditions: "What keeps students safe is more counselors, nurses, smaller class sizes. To achieve this we have to fight against corporate interests, the Koch Brothers, and billionaires who don't want to see workers succeed."

Jay O'Brien, a nurse with United Nurses Association of California/Union of Healthcare Professionals, declared: "If people understand the power of the union, they will fight for it."

O'Brien described a union organizing drive that brought in over 1,000 new members in a month and a half, all through face-to-face conversations with workers. When unsafe working conditions at their hospital drove them to action, the union voted 98 percent in favor of a strike and won major concessions.

At the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, some 200 union members and supporters from around the state rallied. In addition to AFSCME, the union presence included area locals of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, AFT, NEA, United Food and Commercial Workers and Teamsters, as well as private-sector union members.

The rally was also supported by the Poor People's Campaign, Veterans for Peace, Democratic Socialists of America and the International Socialist Organization, as well as a number of University of Wisconsin students.

Sarah Christofferson, a mental health clinic worker and vice president of AFSCME Local 125--one of only a small handful of new union locals formed since Gov. Scott Walker's vicious anti-union Act 10 passed in 2011--focused on the connection between workers' organization, fighting austerity and defending the quality of essential services.

"Many of us have advanced degrees and specialty experience...but we barely make enough to get by," she said. "We believe the work we do is important, so [we] advocated for a union in our workplace."

Harkening back to the famous images of the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968, several in attendance wore or held signs saying "I Am a Man."

In Seattle, public workers rallied at five different locations in protests sponsored by SEIU Locals 925 and 1199, the Washington Federation of State Employees Local Council 28, the Transit Riders Union and "When we stand strong in our union, we have the power to win for ourselves, our patients, and our professions," read one of the calls.

Dozens of union members and activists also turned out to picket at three locations: the main University of Washington campus, the Federal Courthouse downtown and Harborview Medical Center.

At the University of Washington Medical Center, protesters rallied out front and then went inside the Health Sciences Center to support workers, faculty and students in the Dental School, who were picketing to demand an end to tuition increases and funding cuts that could cause the layoffs of 50 percent of the dental school faculty.

Tim Adams, Michael Billeaux, Richard Capron, Mike Ehrenreich, Henry Hillenbrand, Steve Leigh, Gabe Paez, Eleanor Pahutsk and Joe Richard contributed to this article.

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