Labor unions are on the firing lines these days, especially those representing public sector workers. In this hostile climate toward organized labor, it’s essential for unions to remind us of their ability to fight for the interests of all working people — and for the rest of us to recognize those efforts.
Fortunately we have some prime examples of that in Massachusetts. For example, during the past five years, it has been my pleasure to witness a major Massachusetts public employee union — the Service Employees International Union/National Association of Government Employees (SEIU/NAGE) — take a lead role in the fight against workplace bullying.
November 2007 presentation
It’s worth repeating a story I shared here some three years ago, describing how SEIU/NAGE got involved with this cause.
In November 2007 I gave a presentation about workplace bullying to an assembly of several hundred SEIU/NAGE union activists. About a third of the way into my talk, I could tell that it was striking a chord with the union members. Heads were nodding in agreement, people were whispering to one another in animated ways, and some even smiled back in appreciation despite the subject matter.
I closed my remarks by urging them, among other things, to inject concerns about workplace bullying and abusive supervision into their contract negotiations. I hoped that they would take some of these ideas and run with them.
Yes, they did!
A few months later, Greg Sorozan, president of SEIU/NAGE Local 282 and a national vice president of NAGE, informed me that as a follow up to that talk, all of the union locals affiliated with SEIU and NAGE were bargaining over concerns about workplace bullying in their contract negotiations. In January 2009, Greg reported that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had agreed to include a “mutual respect” provision in their new contract that covered, among other things, bullying and abusive supervision. As a result, some 21,000 state workers became covered by a collective bargaining agreement that includes a workplace bullying provision.
This “mutual respect” provision was one of the first major American collective bargaining agreements to include express protections against bullying at work. It isn’t perfect: An alleged violation of the provision may be grieved, but is not arbitrable. This is a real limitation; it means that unresolved bullying charges will not proceed to arbitration, thus precluding a worker from obtaining an enforceable order to stop the behavior or to make an award. Nevertheless, it is a huge step forward to have a collective bargaining agreement that covers bullying and allows grievances to be filed when the behavior arises.
Greg Sorozan also joined the working group to lobby for introduction and passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill. He asked the union’s lobbyists to seek a sponsor in the Massachusetts legislature, and consequently the assistant majority leader of the state senate, Joan Menard (now retired), agreed to be the lead sponsor for the 2009-10 legislative session.
SEIU/NAGE has continued to lend considerable support behind the Healthy Workplace Bill. They helped us to line up some one dozen sponsors in the House and Senate for the 2012-13 session, including new lead sponsors in Rep. Ellen Story and Sen. Katherine Clark. The bill made several important advances within the tortured legislative process, and we’re now gearing up for the 2013-14 session with a lot of momentum pushing us forward.
Today, Greg serves as a co-coordinator of the HWB campaign in Massachusetts. We’ve also received ongoing support and counsel from SEIU/NAGE lobbyists Jim Redmond and Ray McGrath and communications specialist Lisa Smith. SEIU/NAGE members have been contacting their legislators and asking them to support the HWB.
MTA and MNA too!
SEIU/NAGE isn’t the only Bay State union to play a leadership role in building awareness of workplace bullying and calling for change. For example:
The Massachusetts Teachers Association has endorsed the Healthy Workplace Bill and brought people to testify on behalf of the legislation at hearing on the bill last year before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association has hosted workshops and educational programs on workplace bullying and violence in healthcare workplaces.
The Role of Organized Labor to Combat Workplace Bullying
Together, these unions exemplify how organized labor can take a stand against workplace bullying. Unions that would like to join them can participate in at least four ways:
• Negotiate CBA Provisions — Unions should bargain for collective bargaining agreement provisions that protect their members against abusive supervision. (I can provide suggested contract language upon request. Please contact me at email@example.com).
• Use Existing Contract Provisions — Even in the absence of specific protections against abusive supervision, the general substantive and procedural rights in an agreement may provide legal protections for a bullied union member.
• Educate Members and Resolve Disputes – Shop stewards can be trained to help to identify and resolve bullying situations, including those between union members. Unions can encourage a culture of safety and respect among their members.
• Support Legal Reform – Unions can back the enactment of anti-bullying legislation such as the Healthy Workplace Bill.
Unions, like any form of organization, are not perfect. But their presence is a needed source of countervailing power and worker voice. And good unions, like the ones mentioned here, remind us that organized labor stands up not only for their own members, but also for all workers. I’d say that’s a pretty good point to remember on this Labor Day.