by Frank McMurray, West Coast Correspondent
New York Hard Hat News
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
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.