By Steven Greenhouse
June 20, 1999
-- In what could be a showdown between union leaders and rank-and-file
members here, Jamie Newman insists that a referendum she and another
bus driver hope to have placed on the state ballot this November
-- a measure that would instill more democracy in unions -- is
"as American as apple pie."
Using a Web site and a network of friends
to spread the word and collect signatures, the two bus drivers
are marshaling their forces for what they consider nothing less
than a crusade, saying that their proposal would get workers more
involved in their unions and ultimately strengthen the labor movement.
"What we're doing is lighting a fire,"
said Ms. Newman, a piano tuner who became a bus driver nine years
ago. "Many people just don't get involved in union matters
because there's so little democracy." But many union leaders view the proposal
as a poison pill, convinced that it will fuel factionalism more
than democracy and will weaken unions' ability to stand up to
management. The proposal, Initiative 702, has alarmed labor leaders
not just in Washington State, but across the nation because they
fear it could spread to other states and even be pushed in Congress.
For unions and union locals based in Washington
state, the proposal would guarantee members the right to vote
on contracts and pick their officers through direct elections
-- rights many union members do not enjoy. The proposal would
also require government-employee unions to do something that Federal
law requires of private-sector unions: make their financial reports
available to members. There is one especially contentious provision
that many union leaders say would make factionalism run rampant:
any union grouping that can demonstrate the backing of 5 percent
of members could at its own expense and whenever it wants send
out a mailing to all members.
Ms. Newman and her co-sponsor, Johnny Jackson,
an equally intense, equally brash bus driver, were surprised by
organized labor's vehement reaction to their proposal. The state
AFL-CIO issued a leaflet calling it "unnecessary, dangerous
and illegal." The bus drivers, members of the Amalgamated
Transit Union, insist that many union leaders oppose the referendum
because increased democracy could loosen their grip on power and
end their near-monopoly over information sent to members. "This doesn't require anything that
any good unions wouldn't be doing anyway," Jackson said.
"I don't buy that this is destroying unions. This is going to build
unions. What's destroying unions is totalitarian leadership."
Ms. Newman and Jackson came up with the proposal
after growing angry at their union's president, who reached an
agreement that they thought was too sympathetic to their employer,
King County's Transit Authority.
The two drivers say they have a simple vision:
many unions have become too bureaucratic and unresponsive, and
that has helped cause labor's membership and influence to shrink.
Give union members more rights, they say, and workers will invigorate
Opponents of Initiative 702 say there is
a good chance that Ms. Newman and Jackson will not obtain the
200,000 signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot.
Confident that the proposal will win if it gets on the ballot,
the two say that if they do not collect enough signatures this
year, they will try again. The pair also counts on some support in Congress.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, one of Congress' fiercest critics of
labor, told them that he might introduce a bill containing their
Labor leaders have seized on these Republican
overtures as evidence that the referendum will undermine the labor
movement. Why else, they ask, would labor's foes in Congress embrace
Washington state AFL-CIO president Rick Bender
said the drivers were misguided in wanting the public to vote
on regulations affecting unions. "If you have problems with
your local union or parent union, then convince a majority of
the rank and file to change it," he said. "We don't
want to see this go to all the voters, many of whom know little
about how unions function and many of whom would like to damage
Reserving his harshest words for the rule
that would allow mailings whenever dissident groups wanted, Bender
said, "It would cause a lot of disruption and make
it difficult for local unions to function." Some union officials
maintain that measures like Initiative 702 can bring too much
democracy into a union, similar to the way the government of Italy
had so many parties and factions that it could not rule effectively.
Ms. Newman and Jackson, however, insist that
many union leaders dislike democracy and care little about union
members' rights because they fear that an empowered membership
would drive them from office. "I was involved in the civil rights
movement, and basically my upbringing is one about getting rights,"
said Jackson, who grew up in Florida and Georgia. "There
is very little difference between workers rights and civil rights."
Jackson said he would accept support for
Initiative 702, even from anti-union Republicans, because he was
confident his proposal would strengthen, not sabotage, the labor
movement. "When people say this is anti-union,
my comeback is, which part is anti-union?" he said. "If
bringing democracy into unions is anti-union, something is wrong."