“The Mighty, Mighty Union”
Every morning for the past month, my commute to FCNL brings me close by a group of men and women wearing big red signs and pacing in a circle in front of the Madison Hotel on 15th street. Their shouts and chants, amplified by megaphones, echo off of the tall buildings, and sometimes a giant, inflated rat grins menacingly over his fancy business suit at my fellow commuters. The rat hasn’t been there for several mornings, though.
“Yeah, we’re waiting for another replacement rat. One we had got stabbed, but the last one just deflated from all the holes that were created from pebbles and glass hitting it from the cars in the street.”
This morning, as curiosity finally got the better of me, I stopped to talk to the people on strike. I talked to Jason, who told me about the rat, about the new management of the Madison, and about why he and the other workers have been picketing outside the hotel from 6:30 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night, starting on January 30th and going strong when I passed this morning.
“Hey man, how you doing. Stay strong, buddy.” Jason smiled back and greeted the guy that passed us – he seems to know a few of the people that walked by while we were chatting. He didn’t seem surprised that I wanted to know what was going on, though at times I couldn’t hear him, shouting in my ear, over chants of “Check Out! Check Out!” and “SHAME.” And there was this one: “Everywhere we go-o (everywhere we go-o), people want to know (people want to know) who we are (who we are) so we tell them (so we tell them). We are the union (we are the union), the mighty, mighty union (the mighty mighty, union).”
Jason said that when the management of the hotel switched on January 19, 2011 to The Buccini/Pollin Group, the union contract was not honored or continued. When 21 or 22 employees of the hotel restaurant put on their uniforms and showed up to work at 4:00am on the 19th, there was a sign on the restaurant door that said it was closed. When they inquired with the new manager, they were told that their jobs no longer existed. The next day, though Management said that no more changes would be made, employee positions were recast and more union workers lost their job – a total of 27 people. Other reports about the protest say that the workers that stayed were forced to reapply for their own jobs.
“We tried to negotiate at first,” said Jason, “but they didn’t really treat us like people. It didn’t work out, so we’ve been out here every day since January 30th. We want to sit down with them – we’re up for negotiating, but not while people are here on the street.”
Two weeks after the union workers started protesting outside the Madison, thousands of other union employees and their friends gathered in the Madison, Wisconsin capitol building to protest a bill proposed by recently-elected governer Scott Walker. In the context of the financial crisis in Wisconsin, Gov. Walker and others endorsed legislation that, among other things, would limit collective bargaining rights of public workers, including teachers and the police officers guarding the Capitol. “For us, it’s simple,” he said. “We’re broke.”
But somehow, after nearly three weeks of protests during which 14 state senators fled Wisconsin to prevent the Senate from reaching quorum, the measure prohibiting collective bargaining passed. Initially cast as a budget-related bill, it needed at least 20 members of the Senate to be present to be passed in its original form. Scott Walker and his allies reworked the bill, though, to remove the financial aspects of the legislation, and thereby passed it with an 18-1 vote. It seems like the budget wasn’t a major motivating factor, after all. Did I mention that the Koch brothers, owners of one of the largest private companies in the world and longtime anti-union philanthropists, were major contributors to Walker’s campaign?
With the significance of that vote bouncing around in my head like the shouts on 15th street, I asked my new friend Jason what would happen if that kind of legislation was passed in D.C. “Excuse my language,” he said, shaking his head, “but it would screw us completely.”
With sincere respect to Jason, and fairly repulsed at what happened in Madison, I do need to point out that the workers on strike outside the Madison wouldn’t be affected by the new Wisconsin law, which prohibits collective bargaining only for state employees. Private employees nationwide are protected by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which gave people the right to form unions and required employers to negotiate faithfully with unions. Despite the fact that collective bargaining has been protected as a human right by international law (the Universal Dec. on Human rights, and yes, the US is a signatory) for more than 50 years, state employees have no such protection. In some states, officials are even prevented from meeting or making contacts with union representatives. Wow. Gone are the days that economic pressures force managers to negotiate with unions (even those unprotected by law) but now the loss of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin means that employers don’t have to meet with union reps, that they can discriminate against union workers in the hiring process, and they can fire someone who tries to bring a grievance to the bargaining table.
No part of this sounds like much of a democracy to me (indeed only 51% of eligable voters turned out in Wisconsin’s last election). As I was walking away from the Madison Hotel protest, they changed their chants to “…We are America (mighty, mighty, America).” Unions, and protests, and the pursuit of happiness (or, in this case, fairness) are American, I suppose, but their words still made me sad.