NY Hard Hat Fall 99

Initiative Would Shake Up Unions

by Frank McMurray, West Coast Correspondent

New York Hard Hat News

Fall 1999

The members of Seattle Iron Workers Local 86 voted down a new contract twice last year, only to have their international union move into Seattle, impose a trusteeship, sign the contract the members had rejected, ban all unauthorized meetings, and bring up one member who protested on charges of inciting dissension.

Then two bus drivers in Seattle, Jamie Newman and Johnny Jackson, started an initiative campaign for a Union Members Bill of Rights, (Initiative 702) that could bring real democracy to every union member in Washington state. 702 would require all contracts to be ratified by the members, all shop stewards to be elected, direct election of union leaders, and an annual financial report sent to every member. Public sector unions would be included.

Some of these proposals echo already existing federal statutes, but Newman and Jackson want to establish the right of any caucus which can gain the adherence of 5% of a locals members to have the right to mail literature, at their own expense, to union members. There is nothing like this in any present law.

The bus drivers contend that their proposal would crimp the present one-party system in unions, by building alternatives to the leadership. Predictably, current union officials see red when asked about these demands. The Washington state AFL-CIO put out a leaflet terming it unnecessary, dangerous and illegal.

Newman and Jackson became seriously involved in their union, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 587, three and a half years ago during contract negotiations. Later they both ran for shop steward and acquired reputations as stewards who were not afraid to fight management.

They quickly learned about top-down command structures and saw that the lack of member control was a huge weakness in the ATU and most other unions. Labor unions should be the best friends of working people, says Newman. But their purpose has been subverted by this bureaucracy that has taken over.

When the drivers searched for union members legal rights under the federal Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act they were frustrated by empty promises of rights with no practical enforcement. But they knew that Washington State has an initiative process that allows citizens to propose new laws by putting them on the ballot. If the voters say Yes the initiative becomes law.

Jackson and Newman took a trip to the East coast to find out if they could place their initiative on the ballot. They met with leaders of the Association for Union Democracy in New York City and then conferred with Victor Reuther, legendary co-founder of the United Auto Workers, and Clyde Summers, University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor.

Summers told them that such a state law would pass muster, and drew up the language for Washington State Initiative 702, The Union Members Bill of Rights. Victor Reuther threw his weight behind the campaign, declaring: Passage of the Union Members Bill of Rights Initiative is essential...We are all obligated to give our complete energies to place Initiative 702 on the ballot in Washington State.

Placing 702 on the ballot meant getting 180,000 registered voters to sign petitions. Jackson and Newman brought together a broad based organization of union activists, community organizations and religious leaders, white, black and Latino. The signature gatherers went to job sites, supermarket parking lots, shopping malls, churches and temples wherever working people congregate. The petition drive was kicked-off on April 1st at a Longshoremen's and Teamsters Union Rally.

Their April start proved to be a little late to qualify for the ballot this November. They got a creditable 40,000-50,000 signatures by the closing date of July 31st but that wasn't enough. Not discouraged, they plan try again next year and promote the initiative in other states. They testified before a Congressional committee and they'll travel to the AFL-CIO convention for a little rabble-rousing. Steven Greenhouse wrote an extended article about them for the New York Times and they'll establish their own website in September.

Jackson explains his vision of 702: "This is about democracy at work, at the bottom rung...This initiative is designed to help labor." After 702 is passed in Washington, Jackson and Newman plan to bring the issue to California and other states that have the initiative process, bringing the Union Members Bill of Rights to as many workers as possible.

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