STRUGGLE FOR UNION RIGHTS ESCALATES IN THE UNITED STATES –Oklahoma senate votes to repeal bargaining rights


A bill that would strip collective bargaining rights from public employees in Oklahoma’s largest cities is on its way to Republican Governor Mary Fallin’s desk.

The Oklahoma State Senate voted last Thursday to repeal a 2004 state law that grants negotiating rights to city workers.

The current law applies to non-uniformed workers in cities with populations over 35,000. Those seven cities will now be able to decide whether to grant collective bargaining rights.

The bill is the latest blow to union supporters, although the labour debate in Oklahoma, a ‘right-to-work’ non-union state, has been markedly subdued compared to the heated protests in more heavily unionised states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.

The ‘Sooner State’ law is part of a national rightward trend as Republicans use their 2010 legislative gains to push through conservative legislation that goes after public-sector unions, abortion rights and illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, the clash between public worker unions and Republicans in Wisconsin escalated last week, with union supporters now organising similar demonstrations at statehouses across the country.

Union members and their allies are rallying to oppose legislation that would curtail collective bargaining rights, curb earnings and impose furloughs on public-sector employees in 17 states.

The groups are demonstrating against what they see as a national attack on public-sector workers.

This tension is only likely to increase as bankrupt states struggle to balance their budgets and the disparity between public and private pay, pensions, and benefits grows.

The latest battle front over limitations on unions has opened in New Hampshire, where a law is expected to be adopted that would prohibit unions from collecting mandatory fees and disallow collective bargaining agreements that require employees to join a labour union.

The State Senate passed the bill last Wednesday — by a veto-proof vote of 16 to 8 — that would make New Hampshire the 23rd ‘right-to-work’ state, and the first in the Northeast. The House passed a similar bill in February.

‘I thought it was simply a freedom-of-choice issue,’ said State Senator Raymond White, a Republican who supported the bill. ‘At the end of the day it’s simply a bill about does a person have to pay union dues?’

The two houses of the Legislature must work out a compromise bill that will be sent to Governor John Lynch, a Democrat, who has said he will veto it.

The bill will then return to the Legislature for an expected override vote, at which point it will become law.

‘The governor has been clear he would veto this legislation,’ Colin Manning, a spokesman for Lynch, said in an e-mail. ‘The governor does not believe the state should be passing laws dictating the terms of contracts between private employers and workers.’

The battle over the legislation has been especially rancourous for New Hampshire.

Protests were held at the Capitol in Concord last week, unusually loud and vitriolic events in a state where only eleven per cent of employees are union members.

‘We see this as an attack, really, on the middle class and working people and on our ability to negotiate,’ said Mark MacKenzie, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO. ‘Our economy is doing better than most. There is no public outcry for right-to-work in the state.’

The vote illustrates the major political shift that occurred in November, when conservative Republicans took a majority of the House and swept into the Senate, replacing the moderate bloc.

‘These are not your typical New England moderate Republicans,’ said Dante J. Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

‘They’re more libertarian-minded Republicans that think unions should be out of the question in a contract between employee and employer,’ he added.

Like Republicans in other states, supporters in New Hampshire claim the legislation is a way to improve a business climate in which there is competition with businesses in neighbouring states.

‘Right to work means more economic growth and more jobs here in New Hampshire, plain and simple,’ House Speaker William O’Brien and the majority leader, David Bettencourt, said in a statement.

Labour groups were mobilising for the veto fight with rallies last weekend and calls to legislators.

‘The antiworker group has taken control of the State Capitol,’ AFL-CIO’s MacKenzie said. ‘This is a street fight now.’

Meanwhile, the national AFL-CIO has warned ‘there is a scary scenario in store if the Republican budget, drafted by Representative Paul Ryan, is ever implemented.’

The union recommends a new video from ‘Strengthen Social Security, Don’t Cut It’ campaigners, that ‘takes us to a new dimension where “politicians are cutting our Social Security and Medicare and forcing us to work until we die”.’

The video is ‘part of a new campaign to fight back against the Republican budget and other proposals to raise the retirement age, turn Medicare over to Big Insurance and slash Medicaid for seniors, children and people with disabilities.’

This week on April 27 and 28 in more than 50 cities in 18 states, activists from the Strengthen Social Security, Don’t Cut It coalition (the AFL-CIO and the Alliance for Retired Americans are part of the coalition) will hold events at congressional district offices to tell their lawmakers hands off Social Security.

The AFL-CIO urges: ‘If you think this “new dimension” is far too far-fetched to ever become reality, check out Richard (R.J.) Eskow’s column today at the Campaign for America’s Future, where he points out that despite voters’ widespread support for Social Security and Medicare, politicians in both parties are calling for cuts and changes, like raising the retirement age.’

Eskow warns: ‘The retirement age is already scheduled to increase, and raising it even more is nothing less than cruel.

‘That idea’s part of the political trend toward “austerity economics”, a resurgent anti-government ideology that’s engendered a wave of enthusiastic – no, make that orgiastic prose – from well-fed pundits.

‘Their display of almost snuff-movie-like excitement should have been predictable, but I found it shocking anyway.’

l Fourteen airline unions from the United States and seven other countries have formed a cooperative global organisation to give workers a stronger voice in dealing with the world’s major airlines.

The One World of Labor Council was created this week during a two-day meeting of union officials in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Transport Workers (TWU) and sponsored by the London-based International Transport Workers Federation (ITF).

The members of the council, which also includes the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), represent workers at American Airlines, British Airways, Qantas, Chile-based LAN Airlines, and several other carriers that belong to the One World global airline alliance.

One World, whose carriers employ more than 300,000 workers, is one of three main international airline alliances that have been formed by most major airlines, including those in the United States.

These alliances or ‘partner airlines’ agreements function essentially like mergers.

The ‘partners’ routinely agree to change flights and routes and to share code, terminals and advertising. Some of the partnerships allow airlines to shift labour, offshore maintenance and avoid regulation.

These airline alliances pose threats as well as opportunities for workers, said TWU Vice-President John Conley, who is coordinator of the One World of Labor Council.

Workers should share in corporate gains and ‘should not suffer dilution’ of their labour contracts, Conley told a Washington, D.C., press conference.

TWU President James Little says: ‘Employers in our industry have a global agenda.

‘It’s imperative that working people also think globally, and act globally. If we are going to protect our members and compensate for labour laws that end at national borders, unions must begin to act multilaterally.’

‘We know that the airlines are getting together, they’re working together,’ and unions need to do the same to defend workers’ rights, said Gabriel Mocho Rodriguez, civil aviation secretary of the ITF.

The unions have agreed to extend ‘all possible support’ to each other to achieve fair labour contracts and ‘the best safety standards’, Rodriguez said.

Linda White, assistant national secretary of the Australian Services Union, said the common problems currently faced by airline unions around the world included a lack of job security, deteriorating working conditions, and outsourcing and offshoring of work.