Action Speaks!, AS220's panel discussion series, continues next week with a chat on the state of the American union.
With an economy in free fall, and popular anger mounting over bailout-mania, one might expect the labor movement to be front and center. But the streets are relatively quiet. And the nation seems as ambivalent as ever about unionism. There is, in short, plenty of fodder for discussion.
The Action Speaks! panel, convening at AS220 on May 13 at 5:30 pm, will address the theme "1937: The Flint, Michigan United Auto Workers Sit-In," and is set to include Richard McIntyre, an economics professor at the University of Rhode Island, Travis Rowley, chairman of the Rhode Island Young Republicans and Rachel Miller, executive director of the Rhode Island branch of Jobs with Justice, a national group that brings together unions, community organizations and religious groups to focus on economic justice issues.
We caught up with Miller and asked a few questions.
DOES THE ECONOMIC DOWNTURN PRESENT AN OPPORTUNITY FOR ORGANIZED LABOR AND, IF SO, WHAT ARE RHODE ISLAND'S UNIONS DOING TO CAPITALIZE ON THAT OPPORTUNITY? At the root of this economic crisis is that people's wages and real earnings have plummeted over the last several decades while all our expenses, food, gas, and yes, our adjustable rate mortgages have risen.
People do better when they have a union at work. They earn more, they're more likely to have affordable health care and more likely to have a retirement plan. But the right wing has done a decent job of portraying unions as "a third party" beyond what you're willing to do together with your coworkers to raise your standard of living. The opportunity here is to regain some of that ground. The last six months has seen an increase in organizing across the spectrum, bus drivers, supermarket workers, hotel workers. There's also renewed collaboration between unions and community groups.
In Rhode Island we're strengthening support for the Employee Free Choice Act, national legislation that will remove the barriers people face when they try to organize, let employees choose between a secret ballot election or what's known as majority sign up, create real penalties for employers who break the law and force arbitration when employers are stalling first contract negotiations. Seventy-three percent of the country's workers would join a union if they had the opportunity to do so. Employee Free Choice creates the opportunity.
We're also working with groups organizing against foreclosures and evictions to target banks like Bank of America who with 52 million dollars of taxpayer money is lobbying against Employee Free Choice and evicting Providence residents from their homes. RI Jobs with Justice has been working with Fuerza Laboral to support a group of people laid off without notice, in violation of federal law, from the Colibri jewelry factory and we've received tremendous support from organized labor in this effort. It's all connected, the opportunity is to build our joint power to change people's economic futures for the better.
CRITICS SAY UNIONS HAVE TOO MUCH POWER IN RHODE ISLAND. IS THIS A FAIR CRITIQUE? The median wage for Rhode Island workers continues to lag behind our New England neighbors. Foreclosures are on the rise. Companies like Price Rite can get away with demoting and suspending an employee for vocally supporting the Employee Free Choice Act. Real union power is the power of working and middle class people to have the leisure to spend time with their kids rather than work two or three jobs, to have a decent place to live, to be able to make ends meet and save money for the future. I don't think we're there yet.