Being an academician and a lawyer, it’s rare that I get inspired by meetings, but thankfully there still are exceptions.
On Thursday, it was my good fortune to be a guest speaker at the monthly Joint Executive Committee meeting of SEIU/NAGE in Massachusetts. The invitation came by way of Greg Sorozan, president of SEIU/NAGE Local 282 and one of the leading labor activists in the anti-bullying movement.
Union leadership toward worker dignity
Thanks to Greg, union state director Kevin Preston, union legislative agent Jim Redmond, and others, SEIU/NAGE has become a national example of how dedicated labor leadership can play a critically important role in addressing workplace bullying, to the benefit of all workers in the state.
Two years ago, they successfully negotiated a “mutual respect clause” in their collective bargaining agreement that includes bullying behaviors, covering some 21,000 state workers.
Soon afterward, they played a critically important role in getting State Senator Joan Menard to introduce the Healthy Workplace Bill for the 2009-10 session of the Massachusetts legislature. They have carried through on their commitment by helping us to reintroduce the bill for the 2011-12 session, this time with 2 main sponsors and 11 co-sponsors in tow.
Yesterday’s meeting was more of an update and discussion than a rally-the-troops speech. We talked about the legislation and upcoming contract negotiations, as well as the realities of handling claims of workplace bullying as shop stewards and union leaders.
And there, folks, was the best thing about it. It was part of an ongoing conversation. I first talked to the union several years ago about how organized labor can respond to workplace bullying. My remarks were aspirational then — hope, not reality. However, these union leaders took up the challenge and have been at it ever since.
Humanizing public workers and public employee unions
The nation’s anti-union forces currently are mounting a virulent campaign to demonize public workers and their unions. To build public support for squashing them, it helps to dehumanize, caricature, and ridicule them, right?
During the meeting, I learned about efforts being undertaken to counter that assault. It’s a labor coalition campaign called Working Massachusetts (website here), and one of its major projects is a series of radio spots airing across the state, containing short interviews with public workers talking their jobs and the work they do. For a link to the latest, go here.
Lisa Smith, NAGE’s senior communications officer, explained the rationale: It’s about sharing stories of public workers with the public. They include personal accounts of training police officers to do CPR, of engaging in flood control efforts to save communities from destruction, and of clearing snow away from hospital driveways. Through these spots, the public is reminded of the vital, commonplace work being done by state employees.
I have long believed that organized labor needs to take its case more directly to everyday Americans. This gives me hope that labor leaders are starting to understand the need to do so.
Thuggery in Wisconsin, but hope in the Bay State
The meeting was held the morning after the Republicans in the Wisconsin state senate used a procedural technicality to approve Governor Scott Walker’s bill stripping most state workers of almost all of their collective bargaining rights. I must admit that, with human rights on the wane in Wisconsin, it was heartening to see smart, committed, pro-worker union activism and messaging here in my own backyard.
More importantly, the meeting reminded me of the central importance of the labor movement in watching out for the rights, safety, and dignity of workers everywhere.
Not convinced? Think again…
If you don’t get the need for unions, consider the opposition to legal protections against workplace bullying:
- The Chamber of Commerce routinely opposes the Healthy Workplace Bill on the ground that the complete management discretion and the free market, not pesky lawsuits for treating workers abusively, will best solve all problems of unfair treatment.
- The Society for Human Resource Management calls workplace bullying legislation unnecessary and costly, instead preferring that most abused workers trust their HR rep to rectify the situation while the law offers few incentives for employers to act responsively.
- If all else fails, armies of highly paid corporate lawyers are ready and willing to put workers through years of litigation hell if they dare bring a lawsuit against their employer.
On the other hand, labor unions have been amongst the most committed organizational supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill. They have devoted staff resources toward advancing the legislation, submitted written statements in support of the bill, and urged their members to contact their elected officials.
Labor voice a must
I realize that not all supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill are fans of unions. Some may have had unpleasant personal experiences with them.
True, unions are fallible organizations, like any other kind of group endeavor. And a bad union is just that. But these imperfections render the labor movement no less necessary. A world without organized labor is a world that has declared open season on everyday workers.
If you doubt my words, go to Wisconsin and do whatever you can to arrange a meeting with Governor Walker. Tell him you understand the need to strip workers of collective bargaining rights, but that you’d really like him to endorse a bill protecting employees — including state workers — against severe bullying and abuse at work. Tell him he can be a hero by standing up to “special interests” like the Chamber of Commerce, Society for Human Resource Management, and the management-side employment bar.
And then let me know when he stops laughing.