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(en) US, Montpelier, Vermont, Alt. Media: Steward System Is Key to Building the Downtown Workers Union

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 19 Nov 2004 08:54:47 +0100 (CET)


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Supporters of an innovative city-wide union in Montpelier, Vermont are
redoubling organizing efforts as the project enters its second year.
The Montpelier Downtown Workers Union (MDWU) was
launched last June as a joint project of the Vermont Workers Center
(VWC) and the United Electrical Workers (UE). The goal was to get
retail and food service workers, mostly at small businesses, covered
by a master contract that would create a "Montpelier Standard."
The strategy was to develop a contract that could apply to any small
business and would include livable wages, union security, just cause
protection, a grievance procedure, and maintenance of workers' current benefits.

Instead of relying on union elections, the campaign would attempt
to build majorities at each business, and then demand recognition
from the employer along with agreement to the standard contract.
After one year, all the workers covered by the contract could sit
down together to negotiate an improved citywide contract with all
the covered employers.

STRATEGY HITS ROADBLOCKS

This approach was less than successful. In October 2003, workers
at six workplaces where a majority of the workers had joined the
union demanded recognition from their employers and held a
press conference announcing the beginning of the MDWU. Five
of the six employers refused to recognize the union.

In the months that followed, workers did not organize at any
additional workplaces. The momentum that had begun during the
summer faded after a backlash anti-union effort from the owners.

What went wrong?

First of all, when making the early recognition demands, there
was not enough worker organization with real power to pressure
owners to agree. The workplaces are small, with few employees
and high turnover. In many cases, workers were not ready to
handle the attacks they faced from their bosses and customers.

The union was left having to defend the right to organize, instead
of putting bosses on the defensive, forcing them to explain why
they paid poverty-level wages and routinely cut workers' hours
without notice. Our exclusive focus on the recognition demand
diverted us from developing strong internal organization.

The emerging union leadership learned two lessons. First, efforts
to involve downtown workers were much more successful when
we focused on the issues they faced at work rather than the union
itself.

Second, giving people the opportunity to define their issues and
needs was more effective than determining those needs for them
through a pre-written contract.

DOWNTOWN STEWARD SYSTEM

Drawing on these lessons, the MDWU surveyed over 100 workers
about their concerns. We found that "just cause"-the right to be
disciplined or terminated only for a legitimate reason-was the top
issue.

Next, we held a town meeting where 25 downtown workers
agreed on a plan. It was decided that a steward system would be
set up in town to enforce a presumed right of "just cause."

Essentially, we decided to act as if all downtown workers were
already protected by just cause. Instead of fighting to win
employers' acceptance of this right, the union would defend any
worker wrongfully disciplined or fired.

Workers would not need to join the union to receive support. To
back up the steward system, the union would create a
community-worker group that became known as the Workers
Defense Squad. If the stewards were unable to resolve a grievance,
this group would use different tactics depending on the situation:
anything from a few friendly phone calls to a full-fledged picket.

Four downtown workers went through UE's stewards training,
where they were taught to respond to any unfair treatment of
fellow workers as a grievable offense to organize around, just as
they would if they were covered by a union contract.

Each steward took a geographic section of town as their area of
responsibility, and a flyer was created with their photos and phone
numbers to distribute to other downtown workers. Members then
elected a chief steward to coordinate grievances and act as the
spokesperson for the union.

WINNING GRIEVANCES

The grievances started almost immediately. The VWC received a
call from a worker at a large chain supermarket who had had her
hours cut. The employee had been wearing an anti-Bush button
and was taken off the schedule when she refused to take it off.

The union put her in contact with the steward assigned to her
area, and together they brought a Request for Information (as
commonly used in union shops) to the store and demanded to
speak with the supervisor. He refused to meet with them, but later
in the day the worker received a call from the supervisor saying
she was back on the schedule.

This win was just the beginning. When a bartender at a local
restaurant was fired because she requested a medical leave, she
and her steward successfully fought for her to be brought back to
work.

When a former employee called the Workers' Center saying she
was owed 30 hours of pay from three months prior, the union
helped her to immediately get it. When a cook's pay was
decreased and hours cut, the union successfully fought to get him
back to his previous hours and wages.

THEN THEY JOIN

While these are small victories, each illustrates what the union is
capable of, and each worker who has been helped has
subsequently joined the union. The union's reputation is growing
by word of mouth as more people tell their friends and co-workers
about how the union helped them.

The transformation that occurs when workers see the power of
solidarity is the key.

As Sean Damon, a union steward and Brooks pharmacy clerk, put
it, "After months of trial and error, this steward system is what
we've needed to defend workers around the city. I feel like we've
arrived."

by Tenaya Lafore, Labor Notes (November 2004)
---------------------------------------------------
Tenaya Lafore was the full-time organizer for the
Montpelier Downtown Workers Union for the past year, a position
funded jointly by the VWC and the UE.

See also: A-Infos (en) US, Montpelier, Vermont, Strike! - The Montpelier Downtown Workers'
Union Is In Effect!
www.ainfos.ca/04/jul/ainfos00092.html

Members of The Green Mountain Anarchist Collective (VT-NEFAC)
are intimately involved with this initiative.


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