Unions’ Support Key in Great ’63 March
It's often forgotten that unions played a key role making the 1963 March on Washington a success. A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, first pushed for a March on Washington in 1941, and led efforts to organize the march more than two decades later. The United Auto Workers provided much of the funding, and the Brotherhood ensured transportation for many of the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people who attended. “The unions provided the initial money necessary to do this ground organizing,” said Timuel Black, now 94, who organized for the march as president of the Chicago Negro American Labor Council. "It was a natural fit for them; they had experience organizing politically and economically."
A sea of union T-shirts blanketed the National Mall Aug. 24 as thousands of people rallied to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. The movement’s top priority should be “jobs, jobs, jobs,” because most new jobs are “part-time and underpaid,” said Earline Rush of South Carolina, whose father, sister, and brother marched in 1963. The United Federation of Teachers sent more than 20 buses from New York, and about 100 DisneyWorld workers from UNITE HERE Local 737 made the trip from Orlando, Florida.
Several unions, including the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Teamsters, and UNITE HERE, are urging the Obama administration to fix provisions in the law that could undermine workers’ health care. They want the Affordable Care Act changed to make members in multiemployer “Taft-Hartley” plans eligible for federal subsidies and to eliminate the “perverse incentives” for employers to cut workers’ hours to less than 30 a week in order to evade penalties for not giving full-time workers insurance. But UFCW spokesperson Tim Schlittner objected to right-wing groups using the unions’ stance to support repealing the ACA. “We want to fix the law,” he said. “They want to destroy the law. They don’t speak for us, and we will never stand with them.”
At the Nevada state AFL-CIO’s convention in Las Vegas Aug. 20, key concerns included combatting negative stereotypes and attracting new members. Aaron Jones, 27, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, sarcastically declared that he is a “union thug.” “I’m also the guy who’s doing maintenance for the 70-year-old woman down the street,” he added. Nevada is by far the most union state in the Mountain West, with unions representing 16.4 percent of its workforce, compared with less than 10 percent in the other seven states.
Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul was elected president of the national Basketball Players Association Aug. 21, as the union tries to recover from the ouster of longtime executive director Billy Hunter. Paul, a six-time All-Star, is the first player at that level to head the union since Patrick Ewing in the 1990s, but he was a union player rep as a rookie, a vice president for the last four seasons, and a member of the players’ negotiating team during the 2011 lockout. “It’s going to take a lot of work," he said after the announcement. “Thinking about our union now, it’s a great opportunity to rebuild.”
After months of deliberation, Baltimore firefighters have won a 16.5 percent pay increase over the next three years. But the contract, announced Aug. 20 and approved by members of the Baltimore Firefighters IAFF Local 734 and the Baltimore Fire Officers Association IAFF Local 964, also includes concessions on scheduling, pensions, and health care. “It’s been a long time coming,” said one firefighter who wished to remain anonymous, noting that they’ve had small or no raises and universal furloughs over the last five years. “The city is basically paying us what they already owed us.”
Members of the German labor union IG Metall have been traveling to Alabama regularly over the last year, trying to persuade workers at the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance to join the United Auto Workers. “It's OK if they're building the cars over here, but it's not OK if they're not getting the same benefits,” said IG Metall member Denise Rumpeltes, responding to criticisms that the union is motivated by Mercedes’ decision to shift production of the C-Class sedan to Alabama. The UAW, which has made the South an organizing priority, needs 30 percent of the 3,000 workers to sign authorization cards to force an election. It has won support from workers frustrated with the increasing use of temporary employees at the plant.
Workers at the Faurecia auto-parts plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, voted 86-62 against joining the United Auto Workers Aug. 22. The plant, owned by a French company, makes seating for the Mercedes-Benz auto plant in nearby Vance. Last year, workers at Faurecia’s other Tuscaloosa County plant voted by a two-to-one margin to join the union, and the UAW also represents workers at Johnson Controls and Inteva auto-parts plants in Cottondale, ZF Industries in Tuscaloosa, and Johnson Controls’ JCIM plant in McCalla.
Five union members are among the nine people appointed Aug. 22 to a committee that will represent more than 23,500 former municipal workers during Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy case. The committee is expected to fight to preserve vested pension benefits targeted for cuts by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Orr, who contends that federal bankruptcy laws override contractual pension obligations, has proposed paying unfunded pension liabilities at the same rate as all other debts—about 17 cents on the dollar. “We are upset because of the pensions we feel that we earned and because of the medical they just seem to want to take away,” said committee member Shirley V. Lightsey, president of the Detroit Retired City Employees Association. “In Detroit, you are going to see us either go down or stop it.”
Guatemala is no longer ruled by a brutal military dictatorship, but more than 60 union members have been murdered there since 2007. In March alone, health-workers union head Carlos Hernandez was shot dead by two motorcycle-riding assassins, hospital worker Santa Alvarado was kidnapped and strangled, and Kira Zulueta Enriquez Mena, secretary of a municipal-employees union, was killed in the library where she worked. Luis Antonio Alpirez Guzmán, an official of the health workers’ union, says local activists believe government officials “are not ordering the assassinations, but they are not doing anything to avoid them. Therefore the government is considered an accomplice.”