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These days, stories about U.S. unions usually are about how they are on the defensive. Whether it is the bi-partisan threats to slash the number of public workers where Labor is relatively strong, or threats to the social safety net which the union movement fought to establish, the impression is that all the workers’ movement is capable of, at best, is dodging punches as they stumble in retreat. While this appears to be the case, there are growing countercurrents that can change this direction.
An increasing number of workers have had enough of lay offs, speed up, increasing instability, as well decreasing wages and benefits, while the corporate heads suck up profits and bonuses from the so-called “recovery.” It is only a matter of time before workers realize they have more to gain by being organized and adopting a fight-back strategy.
What is necessary is for the unions to take advantage of this perspective and blow off the accumulated dust of decades of conservative habits. For too long unions have been putting their money and work towards getting a seat at the table of the corporate politicians rather than organizing in the trenches. Not only have the bi-partisan attacks on Labor’s historical conquests, and the broken promises of the Democrats demonstrated how wrong this approach is, but a recent organizing victory has displayed what can be won when these upside-down priorities are turned right-side up.
In a campaign that lasted months, the majority of 600 service workers at St. Charles Hospital in Bend, Oregon, voted to join SEIU Local 49. This is the biggest organizing victory in Oregon for 30 years, and the biggest election the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has been involved in since 1996, where a union vote was lost at Precision Cast Parts.
While 61 percent of the St. Charles workers had signed cards for union representation back in November, this was not enough to win a union as it would have been in the 1930s or if the Employee Free Choice Act had been passed. Today the NLRB requires yet another election that usually takes six weeks to set up. This gives the employer ample time to start an anti-union campaign and try to intimidate employees.
There was no shortage of such undemocratic coercion on the part of the St. Charles administration. As a result, the union lead narrowed when a vote was held in the first week of January, 2011, to 255 for a union, 249 against. This was not enough to secure victory, however, because there were 34 contested votes. One month later, after the NLRB reviewed the contested votes, it was determined that the union had won by a vote of 267 to 261.
This victory is all the more impressive when taking into account that St. Charles Hospital is the largest employer in Bend, a city which last November had an unemployment rate of 14.3 percent. Such high unemployment inclines workers to keep their noses to the grindstone, and just be happy they have a job…to a point.
At St. Charles that point was passed for the majority of workers. For three years St. Charles workers had only one 2 percent raise, while the CEO gave himself a bonus rumored at being $50,000. Nearly one third of the housekeeping staff was laid off and replaced with temporary workers. In every department workers were left with no say in management decisions, regardless of how adversely they affected the staff and patient care. Eventually, enough was enough for the majority. Instead of keeping their noses to the grindstone they realized it was time to collectively lift up their heads. They did this by forming a union in order to have a voice, to demand better wages and conditions, and to counter the purely profit oriented direction that the St. Charles administration was taking.
Credit must be given to the leadership of SEIU Local 49, a small union of about 7,000 members, for taking on the ambitious task of organizing St. Charles. It took an enormous amount of resources and staff time. However, what helped win the campaign was the message about unionism many St. Charles workers took as their own and put into action. That is, in order to be effective, a union needs to be a democratic body where each member has a voice in setting the goals and priorities. It is through member involvement that unions have power. Unlike the way unions are frequently portrayed in the corporate media, and if truth be said, how too many leaders act, a union should be a fighting force for the members. A union needs rank and file democracy like the body needs oxygen. It was this emphasis on the membership that helped to convince many workers that voting “yes” was the best way to go.
These are tough times for workers. The organizing victory at St. Charles Hospital demonstrates that Labor has the capacity to rise to the challenge if our goals and priorities are set straight. Unions need to organize now more than ever on the basis of rank and file democracy. This is what is needed to turn the current pro-corporate anti-worker political climate around, as well as union and community organizations joining together to mobilize in the streets for our shared needs.
MARK VORPAHL is a union steward as well as an anti-war and Latin American Solidarity activist. He can be reached at Portland@workerscompass.org.