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At Labor Notes, an International Stage

May 7, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
Putting the movement back in the labor movement was the central discussion at this year’s Labor Notes Conference in Chicago from May 4 to 6. Union members and some union presidents from around the country attended to speak about the challenges they’re facing on the job and to hear from immigrant and international workers trying to form unions in the face of unrelenting attacks.

Alfredo Galdanez, a restaurant worker for Capital Grille in Chicago, which is owned by Darden Restaurants, which in turn owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse, earns only $8.50 an hour while the parent company earned $7.5 billion in revenue just last year.

Galdanez is a member of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, an organization committed to improving the wages and working conditions for the low-wage restaurant workforce. According to the center, the U.S. restaurant industry is less than 1 percent unionized, although it employs more than 10 million workers and reaps more than $1.7 trillion in revenue each year.

Galdanez talked about the horrible working conditions at his worksite. He showed the audience a burn on his forearm he suffered from contacting a very, very hot frying pan. Because he’s earning a low wage, Galdanez said, “My fellow workers and me work 70 hours per week because we have to pay the bills.”

Logistics Industry Ripe for Organizing

Uylonda Dickerson, a steering committee member for Warehouse Workers for Justice, an independent workers center founded by the United Electrical Workers and committed to improving conditions for workers in the logistics industry, said Chicago is one of the most important economic hubs in the country because it’s where all six of the nations’ Class 1 freight railroads converge.

According to WWJ, Chicago transports half the nation’s rail freight, contributing to half a billion square feet of warehouse space where about 150,000 warehouse workers work.

“Chicago moves about $1 trillion worth of goods each year. The items you buy in Wal-Mart or Home Depot first have to pass through the warehouses where we work. You’d think that we’d be making a living wage, but the harsh reality is that 63 percent of us in the logistics industry work as temps, earning poverty-level wages while encountering harassment on the job,” said Dickerson.

Egyptian Workers’ Strikes Hurl President from Office

Ehab Fathy Ahmed Shalaby, a textile worker from Egypt and a member of the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress, provided a vivid account of the events that ultimately led to the removal of the U.S.-backed President Hosni Mubarak. Shalaby noted that Egypt’s labor movement stretches all the way back to ancient Egypt.

The roots of contemporary labor upheaval originate in 1986 when strikes were deemed illegal. In 2006 there was a huge strike and since then, the “labor movement has been growing like a snowball,” said Shalaby through an interpreter.

Textile workers struck again in April 2008, which Shalaby described as a “small revolution.” On a day in April ’08, it was the first time that demands for freedom and social justice were levied against the now-deposed President Mubarak.

In February 2011, workers started to form independent unions and soon thereafter organized general strikes to pressure Mubarak to step down. Indeed, from the time Mubarak was forced out of office in February 2011 until February 2012, there were 2,000 strikes.

Rising Wisconsin

Adrienne Pagac, co-President, Teaching Assistants Association, University of Wisconsin-Madison, gave an equally compelling description of how her union was the first to occupy the Wisconsin state capitol in February 2011 after Gov. Scott Walker introduced his infamous Budget Repair Bill to strip public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights and slash $1.1 billion in funding for public education.

Pagac noted that an ally within the State Capitol alerted the TAA of the regressive elements in the legislation. The union then sent out a call for volunteers. Only seven were working in the union’s offices on the Friday the legislation was announced. By the weekend, over 100 TAA volunteers appeared where they worked out a campaign in response to Walker’s bill.

As a result of the union’s work, and as word spread throughout the community outside the UW-Madison campus, about 1,000 people marched from the campus to the Capitol where TAA union members would occupy for 16 days.

The union tried to filibuster the bill so that hearings could continue for all legislators to comment in order to buy time for the union and its allies to strategize.  

“Our actions couldn’t have happened without the collective action of unionists, students and the community,” said Pagac.

She noted also that the 16-day occupation was sustained thanks to the big state public sector unions that provided food, water and buses, as well as support provided by private sector unions such as the Teamsters.

Unfortunately, the union-busting bill passed in the dead of night. But on June 5, Gov. Walker faces a recall vote and thus a Democratic challenge as labor and the community were able to collect over 1 million signatures to initiate a recall (approximately half that amount is required to trigger a recall in Wisconsin).

However, Pagac acknowledged that the union has suffered “theoretical blows” from the lack of an endorsement for a Democratic candidate for the Tuesday, May 8 primary as the two leading Democrats in the primary race have purportedly not committed to reversing Walker’s public sector wage and benefit cuts.  

Battling the Cops for Jobs 

Perhaps the best nail-biting account of labor struggles over the past year was provided by the president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 21’s Dan Coffman. He described how his union members stood on the railroad tracks to prevent a freight train from delivering grain to a new terminal in Longview, Washington where the transnational grain exporter EGT intended to violate the union contract by hiring non-union workers to store the grain in the terminal. 

The fight back that ILWU Local 21 displayed echoed the militant tradition of the union that stems back to the days when longshoremen, Harry Bridges (later elected as president of the ILWU), presided over a strike in San Francisco in 1934 where the employers, along with the National Guard, used violence to try to break the strike. 

Coffman mentioned the great fear he and his fellow members felt as they saw a 200 ton locomotive with bright lights glowing approach them. But, ironically, the fear only strengthened the union’s resolve to stand their ground to preserve their jobs. They dumped grain on the tracks, which Coffman compared to the original Tea Party in Boston in 1773 when American colonists overthrew East India Company tea into Boston Harbor, which resulted in the cops storming and arresting the union members. 

Despite the bitter struggle, the transational company reached a new collective bargaining agreement with the Local, according to Coffman.

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