2011 was Year Three of the Great Recession, but it may be remembered as Year One of the Great Fightback by working people.
On Feb. 15 — four days after peaceful demonstrations in Cairo toppled a dictator — an America uprising began, with mass protests at state capitols, starting in Madison, Wisconsin. On Sept. 17, the movement re-erupted, with an “Occupy Wall Street” protest in New York City that within two weeks had spread worldwide.
If the mood is surlier than ever, it may be because the economy isn’t working out for working people. In the United States, official unemployment was at 8.6 percent in November, down just 1.2 percentage points from a year before. Bankers binged on mortgage-backed securities, but workers have suffered the resulting hangover.
Continued U.S. joblessness is also brought on by a long-term offshoring of production. America’s trade deficit was topping $540 billion by year’s end — $40 billion more than 2010 — and polls say a majority of Americans think U.S. trade policy is broken. But Congress ratified three more NAFTA-style trade deals in October — with Korea, Panama and Colombia. The treaties, negotiated in the Bush years, were pushed to a vote by President Obama.
Meanwhile, wages are stagnant, regular unleaded is selling for $3.25 a gallon, and health care is more expensive than ever: Average annual premiums for employer-provided full family health insurance passed the $15,000 mark in 2011.
Still, for organized labor, 2011 was a vindication. In Wisconsin, teachers struck, Democratic legislators fled, and crowds of up to 100,000 turned out — all to oppose a Republican governor’s plan to strip public workers of their union rights. “Collective bargaining” might have seemed an unlikely cause a year before, but by the end of February, pollsters were finding that 77 percent of Americans think public employees should have the same union rights as private sector workers. In a matter of weeks, the “Spirit of Wisconsin” spread to every state capitol, as Americans, mostly non-union, turned out in solidarity with beleaguered unionists under the slogan “We are One” and “We are all Wisconsin.”
By late October, “I am the 99 percent” had replaced those slogans as the mantra of a popular movement, and even tiny Mosier, Oregon, population 421, had an “occupation.” Campers around the country were mostly rousted by local police, but participants demonstrated a new appetite for disrupting business-as-usual.
In Portland, while the occupation of two downtown squares drew carping about mess and for attracting the homeless, union support for the camp and ideas it represented never publicly wavered. The downtown camp was evicted by police Nov. 13 after 37 days of occupation, but the idea of occupation moved on to banks, a bridge, and ports. An Occupy revival seems likely in 2012.
In Wisconsin, protest energy succeeded in recalling two of six targeted Republican state senators who voted for the anti-union bill, which took effect anyway. But voters in Ohio struck down — by better than a three-to-two margin — that state’s version of a law stripping public employee bargaining rights.
For the trade union movement, there were other developments of national note in 2011.
- In April, a group of 43,000 transportation security officers at 450 airports voted to unionize, and in June selected American Federation of Government Employees over an independent union.
- Also in April, National Labor Relations Board dared to enforce federal labor law in a case involving Boeing, and all hell broke loose in Congress among Republicans. Evidence from top Boeing leaders was that the company had located its 787 Dreamliner final assembly in South Carolina expressly because union members had struck at its other locations; that retaliation is against the law, and the NLRB brought Boeing before a federal judge. House Republicans called for repeal of the law and tried to subpoena the agency’s legal strategies. But in December, Boeing and the Machinists union buried the hatchet with a four-year contract extension that includes a pledge to locate some future assembly work at existing union facilities.
- In August, 45,000 workers at Verizon’s East Coast land line operations went on strike for two weeks, returning to work with Verizon pledging to resume bargaining with Communications Workers of America. Five months later, the workers are still without a union contract.
In the Portland area, the economy wasn’t bleak for all workers: Many building trades union members got back to work in 2011 — building a $4 billion chip plant for Intel, a $344 million hospital for Kaiser Permanente, and performing a $144 million renovation of the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt federal building. In October, Daimler Trucks North America began adding several hundred workers at its Portland truck plant.
Other local stories of note:
- In January, members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 began picketing outside meetings of TriMet’s board of directors after the transit agency halted cost-of-living wage increases and started taking money out of workers’ paychecks to cover a portion of their health insurance costs. The union contract expired Nov. 30, 2009, and the sides were awaiting an arbitrator’s ruling on several unfair labor practice complaints when TriMet unilaterally implemented the changes. The sides are still waiting for the state arbitrator’s decision.
- A fired pro-union teacher at private Portland French School won reinstatement in a case with the National Labor Relations Board, only to see all 40 employees lose their jobs when the partially unionized school shut down in May. The non-profit school had a history of bad financial practices, but may have been pushed over the edge by the $170,000 in legal bills to oppose a campaign to join American Federation of Teachers.
- It was a bad year for long-time union foe Bill Sizemore. In March, a judge tossed out his lawsuit against several unions and union-supported groups for calling him a racketeer. “The court finds that it could be reasonably inferred that Bill Sizemore was a ‘convicted racketeer,’ the judge wrote in his decision. Then in August, Sizemore spent 18 days in jail for not filing tax returns – presumably to shield income from garnishment in the multi-million dollar damage award he owes to two unions for the pattern of ballot measure campaign fraud and forgery that led to that 2002 civil conviction on racketeering.
- Allegations of personal misconduct dogged Oregon First District Congressman David Wu in the first half of 2011, leading eventually to his resignation in August. In the special election Democratic primary to replace him, Suzanne Bonamici outpolled Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian and State Representative Brad Witt, a former secretary-treasurer of the Oregon AFL-CIO. Bonamici will face Republican Rob Cornilles in a Jan. 31, 2012, special election.
- International Longshore and Warehouse Union, shut out of operating EGT’s new $200 million grain terminal in Longview, Washington joined a federal lawsuit by the Port of Longview, and ramped up protests beginning with a 1,200-strong rally in June. In July, workers entered the terminal and dumped grain into the yard. Then EGT took ILWU by surprise signing a five-year deal for members of Operating Engineers Local 701 to operate the shipping terminal as employees of contractor General Construction Co. ILWU protests continued, however, with several episodes of mass civil disobedience on railroad tracks, halting grain shipments for a time. The legal cases and pressure campaign continue in 2012.
In Oregon, several large employers went union in 2011:
- On Jan. 5 Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 won an election, by four votes, to represent 600 support staff at Central Oregon’s largest hospital, St. Charles Medical Center in Bend. It was Oregon’s biggest private sector union win in recent history.
- A group of 155 workers at Dosha Salon and Spa voted in March to join Communications Workers of America Local 7901. But owner Ray Motameni hired former Oregon Republican party chair Bob Tiernan and an associate to represent him in negotiations, and it’s not clear that workers are any closer to a first contract at the end of the year than were when they started bargaining.
- In June, a unit of 7,751 state-paid personal service providers voted to join SEIU Local 503, making it Oregon’s largest union.
- A group of 160 workers at Planned Parenthood of the Columbia-Willamette voted in August to join SEIU Local 49.
On the other hand, union-busting also went on all year long at employers all over, with union supporters fired at Rogue Ales, Dosha Salon Spa, MetroWest Ambulance, Grange Cooperative, Georgia-Pacific, and numerous other employers. A local Starbucks barista, fired after wearing union pins, got a $10,000+ settlement.
In the second half of the year, U.S. Postal Service unions campaigned hard to oppose service cuts and post office closures, with rallies, and appeals for support from local and federal elected officials. USPS is proposing a major set of closures to cope with declining revenues and unusual retiree benefit pre-funding requirements imposed by Congress.
In November, Washingtonians voted to privatize liquor sales, in a ballot measure bought and paid for by CostCo. After the vote, CostCo declared that the 1,000 soon-to-be-laid-off union members working at state liquor stores could apply for jobs at its big box warehouse stores. Two unions that represent liquor store employees — UFCW and the Teamsters — have filed a lawsuit to invalidate the election, claiming the measure was unconstitutional because it violated the state’s “single subject” rule.