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(en) US, Montpelier, Vermont, Strike! - The Montpelier Downtown Workers' Union Is In Effect! by Luther Blisset Green Mountain Anarchist Collective (VT-NEFAC)

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 4 Jul 2004 10:46:58 +0200 (CEST)


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In Vermont, where 79 percent of businesses employ nine or less people, building
a strong union movement could be an uphill battle. Many workers are employed in
small service sector operations highly dependent on tourist dollars, where
organizing has been a seemingly impossible task. Additionally, most of these
workplaces pay low wages and employ people on an ‘at will' basis, where workers
can be fired at anytime for any reason. These economic ‘on the job' realities
have long posed difficult questions for workers interested in building a
movement that gives them a voice on the job and strives to
organize broad based working class power in the Green
Mountains. Enter the Montpelier Downtown Workers Union.

For almost a year, organizers from the Vermont Workers' Center,
a statewide workers' rights organization, and the rank and file
oriented United Electrical Workers (UE) have collaborated with
downtown workers to bring all service and retail workers in the
state capitol of Montpelier into a single citywide union. Our union
seeks to represent cooks alongside cashiers, coffee shop workers
next to bartenders and gas station attendants with movie theater
concession stand clerks.

Unlike other more “skilled” strata of the working class,
most workers who are employed in the service and retail sectors
are living check to check, week to week. To be fired could mean
getting your electricity shut off, eviction, forclosure, sleeping on a
friend's or family member's couch, navigating
labyrinthine bureaucracies just to get some cash to buy diapers
for your kids, filling up on crap food at church soup kitchens, or
any number of other undesirable consequences. Such conditions
of poverty and precariousness don't often help build the sense
of entitlement among workers that leads us to take collective
action to bring about changes in our workplaces. More often our
vulnerability in capitalism limits us to more individualized forms
of resistance: slacking off, stealing and shirking off work for a day
by calling in sick. In this context, our unionization effort has not
only been an uphill battle but also a bold statement that if we
band together change is possible.

LOOKING BACK

"I joined the union because I know one voice doesn't always get
heard. If we all stand like an army, then we will be heard."
commented Diana Duke, a cashier at M&M Beverage Bottle
Redemption Center, last fall. Diana was not alone. Workers in
over a dozen downtown shops had formed an organizing
committee during the late summer and early fall months to bring
the Montpelier Downtown Workers' Union into existence. There
was a buzz among many workers about getting the effort off the
ground and getting involved.

In mid October of last year, a majority of workers at J Morgan's
Steakhouse, La Pizzeria, State Street Market, Charlie O's, Karma
Imports, and the Savoy Theatre announced at a press conference
that they had signed up with the union. These workers demanded
that their employers recognize the union and sign a "one size fits
all" contract that entitles the workers to a fair grievance
procedure, a fifty cent an hour raise, and a 'just cause' standard
for discipline and firing.

While the fledgling citywide union drive had met with some
immediate success in signing up members, it faced a backlash
from a number of local business owners and the area's upper
middle class as soon as it went public. Only one of the businesses
where workers demanded union recognition, The Savoy, has to
this day signed the contract. Other businesses have been
resistant, and, in the case of J Morgan's Steakhouse, hostile
towards the unionization effort.

At J Morgan's, an upscale downtown restaurant which
employs over 40 people, management has gone to great lengths
to combat the efforts of their workers to win union representation.
The Bashara family, owners of J Morgan's and about half a
dozen other Central Vermont businesses, have intimidated and
harassed workers, threatening them with dismissal if they joined
the union, offering bribes of meals and pay increases if they
opposed the union drive, forcing them into captive audience anti-
union meetings, and coercing them to reveal the names of union
organizers and prospective members. They have fired at least one
server to date, Val Tofani , for her unwavering pro-union stance
and have awarded pro-union employees with the worst shifts and
hours in an effort to break their morale. The efforts of the Bashara
family were highly successful in breaking the initial push for
unionization and severely polarizing the workplace. As one
pro-union employee Ellen Thompson put it, “Suddenly fifty
people who had so much to say about improving their workplace
were even scared to talk about what they did last weekend.”

In December, UE stepped up to defend union workers and put a
stop to management's attempt to ‘chill' the union
drive, by filing 20 Unfair Labor Practice charges against the
restaurant . NLRB investigators later dropped only two of UE's
charges and concluded by adding ten of their own, bringing the
total number of charges to 28. As this article goes to print it looks
as if a settlement of the charges is near. Tentatively, the
settlement would provide financial restitution to a number of
pro-union workers that were given worse or fewer shifts as a
result of their union activities and would also require
management to post notices promising not to violate
workers' rights in the future.

While the union had to appeal to the federal government for help
in defending union workers at J Morgan's, the workers
themselves have not been entirely content with using the law
alone in the struggle for union recognition. "Since our boss has
refused to recognize our union we've had to use many different
approaches. We've tried to sway our boss with everything from
community delegations, to candlelight vigils, to coffee-ins (where
union supporters occupy tables and order nothing but coffee), to
large protests," said line cook Jesse Rosado, "We even had Santa
Claus pay a visit a couple days before Christmas and present the
Grinch of The Year Award to management."

The union busting actions of the Bashara family and J
Morgan's management are not unique, but are rather a
reflection of the attitude many downtown business owners and
the area's upper middle class in general. Owners of
businesses who were considering recognizing the union, received
phone calls from peers who told them, “Don't you dare
sign that contract.” Workers at several area businesses were
told they couldn't speak to a union organizer while on the
clock, even if they weren't talking about the union. After the
announcement of the citywide organizing drive the mayor of
Montpelier at the time, Chuck Karparis, immediately chimed in
with a few condescending comments on the matter. "I think a
citywide union is totally unnecessary for this community," he
said. "Yet again, we're drawn into something that is being
proposed that will absolutely have a negative effect on businesses
downtown."

Brian Mitosky, the owner of Coffee Corner, an overpriced
downtown diner, wrote up an anti-union statement , demanded
that all of his employees sign it and then taped it up in the
window of his business. After receiving a number of negative
comments from customers and downtown workers he removed
the sign. Weeks later while drinking at a bar, he threatened,
James Haslem, the director of the Vermont Workers Center and
told him to get out of town. Blood was averted when Brian was
herded out of the bar by his friends to another area bar, where he
proceeded to talk trash about the union and then collapse in a
drunken mess on top of a very small waitress.

Clearly, there was a determined anti-union campaign afoot that
polarized many downtown workers and, to a large extent, shut
down the dialogue among workers about unionizing. Point blank:
workers were scared. In round one the bosses were successful but
we weren't giving in that easy.

While some workers responded to the backlash with silence or
apathy, others stepped up to the union bashing activities of bosses
and politicians with solidarity and determination. In response to
Mayor Karparis' attempt to whip up fear and resentment
towards The Montpelier Downtown Workers' Union, rank
and file workers circulated a letter in response to his comments
that was eventually published in a local paper. Additionally
workers and community supporters flooded the local paper with
letters to the editor. A 200 person mass march was organized on J
Morgan's, and well attended weekly pickets sprung up
outside the upscale steakhouse. Additionally, in February,
workers in the union got together and started publishing a
monthly newsletter, The Downtown Workers' Journal, to get
their views and opinions out.

The struggle at J Morgan's has been the main battle in the
public eye, but has by no means been the only one in town. At La
Pizzeria pro-union server Amanda Lyon had her best shifts given
to newly hired wait staff. Amanda appealed to her bosses to give
her back her shifts to no avail. In most circumstances, workers
faced with this all too familiar scenario would seek out a second
job. However, as a member of the Montpelier Downtown
Workers' Union, Amada had other options. After receiving a
phone call from Amanda, workers on the organizing committee
went as a delegation and spoke with the bosses. Downtown union
workers made it clear that taking shifts from a veteran 4 year
employee and giving them to newly hired servers, without first
consulting her, was intolerable. The bosses were cold towards the
delegation at first, refusing to sit down and address the issue.
However, after a few days they called Kim Lawson,
Amanda's union representative, and worked out an amicable
solution that gave Amanda almost all of her hours back.

Kristen Warner, an outspoken pro-union worker, faced a different
sort of calamity when she was seeking new employment. While
attempting to get a job at Capitol Grounds, Montpelier's most
popular coffee shop, the owner Bob Watson told her that he
wouldn't hire her because “she wasn't bringing the
union in here.” In response, a union iron worker paid Bob a
visit to put him in check and let him know that, not only was his
behavior illegal, but that it also would not be tolerated. According
to our friendly neighborhood ironworker, when faced with the
knowledge that there could be consequences for his anti-union
discrimination, the boss backed off and said Kristen could have
the job if she wanted it.

To many workers in Montpelier, the actions of helping a fellow
worker stand up for herself, and checking a boss' blatantly
anti-union behavior, represents what the downtown union is
really about. In short, workers sticking together and watching
each others backs.

Faced with the fact that the area bosses' anti-union campaign
was fairly succesful, we began to renew our efforts as the Spring
approached with a survey. In an attempt to break out of a
polarized dialogue about unions, (for or against) we conducted a
survey that focused on finding out what workplace and
community issues were of most importance to downtown
workers. In three weeks we conducted 100 surveys at over 40
different shops covering approximately 16% of the entire
downtown workforce. The survey revealed that most workers
were looking for what a standard union contract could provide.
Out of approximately twenty options presented in the survey, the
number one issue for downtown workers was protection against
unfair firing and discipline, with advance notice of work schedule
coming in second and a standard grievance procedure trailing
slightly behind at number three. The survey helped us reopen the
conversation about unionization with a number of workers who
were “shut down” due to the anti-union backlash. In late
April, we unveilied the results at a downtown workers town
meeting where we discused what we had found through the
survey, what issues we were facing in our places of work, and
where we wanted to see the union go.

LOOKING FORWARD

It would be a foolish lie to say that our union drive has been a
flawless success. Here we stand after almost an entire year since
the effort began with one union contract, and a small, but high
quality group of workers holding the unionization effort down. It
would also be the worst sort of cynicism to dismiss our effort as a
complete failure. It is what it is: a work in progress.

The fact of the matter is that we have brought together a group of
workers who might never have even conencted with one another,
let alone taken the huge risk of organizing a citywide union in
Montpelier. People who may never have otherwise stood up to
the status quo are now speaking out, building skills, and
spreading class conciousness to others. We have forced a
dialogue in Central Vermont about those of us who work for
scraps in the service economy and are always conveniently
ignored by do-gooder liberals and politicians alike. For the time
being our invisibility is over. Additionaly, merely because of our
presence, we have, to some extent, put area bosses on their best
behavior in years: unusual raises have been given out at a number
of workplaces and some workers report that concerns have been
listened to with uncommon attentiveness, when before they
would have been simply brushed aside.

Our first strategy was to get majorities at a shop and then demand
recognition. If the boss wouldn't recognize the union we
would then put the pressure on. This strategy failed for numerous
reasons: turnover in the shops, successful anti-union backlash,
lack of rank and file self-activity in the shops, and lack of a
coherent strategy of community pressure and escalation.

However, despite the odds, our union has stuck together and that
is a success in of itself. Our organizing committee could have
fallen apart very easily, but we are tough motherfuckers and we
made it through a long, hard winter.

Currently, we are orienting ourselves towards future goals rather
than bemoaning the trials of the previous months. We have
decided to start “acting like a union” in lieu of having
union recognition at various shops. Now, instead of just signing a
union petition, we ask other workers to become dues paying
members so they feel more ownership over the organization. We
have transitioned from an organizing drive into being part of UE
Local 221, (An amalgamated local of different shops across the
state) and are electing our own officers to bottom-line different
responsibilities. A number of us are busy learning how to be shop
stewards and we have set up a steward system based on
geography (i.e. different stewards are assigned to different parts of
town) with the plan to help other workers, union and non-union
alike, when they have grievances with their boss that they're
having difficulty reconciling on their own. In this way, whether
the boss chooses to recognize us or not, we are still an organized
force that they must contend with when they are mistreating their
employees. If the boss doesn't want to deal with the
workers' grievances or the steward, we then bring in our
newly formed “defense squad” which is a group of
downtown workers, workers in other unions and community
members who have committed to mobilize in defense of
downtown workers when called upon.

In concert with this effort of building a steward system, we are
refocussing on the most important part of building any
organization: asking others to join. With a steward system coming
into place, a monthly newsletter, and a more tightly knit
organizing committee, other downtown workers have more of a
an incentive to cough up the twelve dollars a month in union
dues, because they know that there are now more concrete
resources they can draw upon from the union.

Although we don't know what the future will bring for our
efforts, we are determined to move forward into a new phase of
our unionization effort and give it the god damn best that
we've got. With a focus on membership sign up, dealing with
workers' grievances, and continuing to put the issues of
downtown workers at the forefront of community dialogue,
we're hopeful that we'll fight and win in the struggle for
the unionization of downtown Montpelier. As Bruce Springsteen
puts it, “No one wins unless we all win!” and all I gotta
say is were gonna fight this one ‘till the bitter end or victory.

Luther Blisset is a rank and file member of The Montpelier
Downtown Workers' Union (UE 221) and The Green
Mountain Anarchist Collective (VT-NEFAC).

******************************************** This article
is a preview from the debut issue of "Strike!"

Strike! is a tabloid newspaper covering the ever important
struggles of working people in the Northeast and across the
world. From community and workplace resistance, to the fights
against racism and sexism as well as international turmoil, the
struggles that rock your world are brought to you here with a
fresh anarchist-communist perspective. Strike! is the
English-language agitational publication of the Northeastern
Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC). We are bilingual
federation of revolutionaries who identify with communist
tradition in anarchism. Our activity in the last few years has
focused around radicalizing the broad struggles of our class, in
the streets, in our workplaces and in our neighborhoods.

Strike! has come to exist after a long process of rethinking our
agitational publications following the end of Barricada magazine,
which for a time was a NEFAC affiliated magazine.

In this issue of Strike!, you will find articles on rank and file labor
struggles, tenant union organizing, eco-racism, indigenous
struggles, and direct action in the streets! Plus, there is a regular
column about GI resistance within the military, and a
pro-queer/feminist advice column.

Strike! can be obtained in most large cities in the Northeast.
NEFAC members will be making a special efffort to have it
available in community centers, left bookshops and at picket lines
and demonstrations.

Bulk orders and subscriptions can be made with the Stelton
Anarchist Collective: PO BOX 3107 New Brunswick, NJ 08903,
or contact: skip@nefac.net

For letters to the editor, content questions, submissions, and
press exchanges, contact Class Action at: classaction@nefac.net

Also, brand new issues of NEFAC's other publications (The
Northeastern Anarchist, Ruptures and Cause Commune) are set
to hit the newstands very soon!

Link: http://nefac.net



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