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Rhode Island Labor Leaders on State of the Unions

Saturday, August 31, 2013


AFSCME members at a recent rally at the Rhode Island State House.

Labor Day weekend marks for most the end of summer, the signal for the start of school, or more simply the beach, barbecues, and the bonus of a day off.

However, nearly 120 years after Labor Day was officially recognized nationally by Congress, labor issues are still at the front of national and local debate. Where do unions stand in Rhode Island today?

"Rhode Island council 94 has been working hard to organize the unorganized," AFSME's J Michael Downey told GoLocal.  "We have been successful in bringing hundreds of new members to our council.  We will continue to organize new members."

In Rhode Island, child care workers are now at the center of a strong unionization effort, albeit one that has seen both ardent support and staunch opposition.

The public employee pension reforms enacted back in 2011 are currently the target of an on-going lawsuit driven by the unions, who are fighting changes made to cost-of-living-adjustments as well as retirement age.  And the suit itself has recently become a political football as to who can, can't, or shouldn't be talking about it, positioning labor once gain as a key player in the political process in the Ocean State.

The opposition isn't shy about speaking out against the unions.  "Rhode Islanders are dealing with radicals. This is a cultural conflict. This is a spiritual battle. Not a war of ideas," wrote Rhode Island Republican leader Travis Rowley.

This Labor Day weekend, GoLocal asked local labor leaders as to their take on the "state of the unions" in Rhode Island.

Historical Context

Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York, 1882. (Wikipedia).

"I will be spending part of my Labor Day where I have spent the last four - at the yearly Labor Day Commemoration of the Saylesville Massacre, which will take place at the Moshassuck Cemetery in Central Falls at 10:00 AM," said James P. Riley, Secretary and Treasurer of the UFCW Local 328.  

Riley continued, "In 1934, in the midst of the General Textile Strike (the largest in our country's history) covering 400,000 textile workers from Alabama to Maine, machine gun bullets rained down upon peaceable unarmed strikers from National Guardsmen inside the cemetery. To this day, some of the gravestones are pock-marked with holes from those bullets."

"On that day, we will remember and celebrate those martyrs who fell between the rows of gravestones. Charles Gorzynski and William Black, as well as Jude Courtemanche and Leo Rovette who were killed in Woonsocket.  In 1934, twenty-nine workers across the United States along with the four heroes from Rhode Island paid the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of justice and democracy in the workplace."

"We will remember them at the cemetery as the struggle for human rights/workers rights continues to this day in Rhode Island and across the nation," Riley.

Current Perspective

Scott Duhamel with the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council said that while the current situation was grim for members, there were signs of improvement in Rhode Island.

"Our essential issue is the decided lack of work our members have had. We've got 10,000 members. We've averaged 40% unemployment across the board over the past 10 years. Some of our members are at 3 to 4 years now," said Duhamel.  

"Our industry is "you earn when you work" -- to earn pensions, annuity. We're a private union, we work for for-profit construction companies.  You can only earn your benefits by working. We've had people losing houses, jobs, marriages -- our people can get a call one day for two week of work, and then not work for months," he continued.  

"The lack of projects means lack of work, and its been terrible. There haven't been private projects of scale, never mind public. Without lasting projects, we have lost some members, and we've got some in some serious financial situations."

Still, Duhamel thinks are glimmers of hope on the horizon.

"We believe there will be significant job opportunities with construction on the 195 Corridor. The Commission is doing a good job of getting things ready, they're already on street work, and they've streamlined the permitting process," said Duhamel.  

"Still, the the problem is that shovels in the ground that might not be until 2015. I compliment their work, but I wish there was a sense of urgency. Will it be all union? Probably not. I hope and believe though that with our skills, we'll be part of the bulk of the work. There's nothing carved in stone, but our history, our outreach, our ability to talk to developers indicates we should be."

Dynamo House

Duhamel mentioned the Dynamo House project as a possible boost for the unions as well -- and boon for the city. "I've been calling it the nicest bird house in Providence."

"We believe this will be a huge catalyst for the 195 land development, providing a project of scale and hours. Manhours are what matters to our members - and that's just the terminology, our ranks include women of course.

"This collaborative effort among the colleges and (developer Richard)Galvin -- it bodes well for the area, and for us to be part of this project," said Duhamel. "If things go according to plan, this could happen as soon as 2014.

Duhumel cited Brown University as playing a critical role during the recent downturn in construction. "They've been a saving grace," said Duhamel of the Ivy League institution. "They want Providence residents working on their projects" -- Duhamel noted they had a memorandum of understanding with Building Futures to utilize local labor. "They don't have to do it union -- and they don't do it all union -- but they've provided work opportunities across the board."

AFSCME's Downey commented on what he viewed as the discrepancy in the public and private sectors.  

"Our elected officials need to find a way to balance budgets without stripping public employees of pensions and benefits. Our lawmakers passed laws to protect bond holders in central falls while allowing retired police and firefighters to have there pensions reduced by over twenty five percent."

"Rhode Island council 94 will not rest until all workers are treated with the same respect our elected officials have shown to banks and bond holders in the city of central falls. All employees deserve no less."

Looking Ahead

UFCW's Riley addressed recent changes that have affected his membership.

"An unexpected challenge for the UFCW and other private sector unions, whose members have enjoyed the comfort and security of Taft-Hartley Health & Welfare Insurance on the job, is the Affordable Care Act that, while well meant, seriously jeopardizes our relationship with our members (especially part-timers)," said Riley.  "We continue to lobby the administration to this day in hopes of changing part of the legislation to help us to continue to represent our membership to the best of our ability."

"Our challenge, if this part of the law stays intact, is to assist our members as they wade into these murky waters. We will need to gear up our member communication processes and help them to make the right decision when they face the Exchanges and make their choices of which plan is the right fit for them."

"I am also frustrated at Congress's inability to make any changes regarding existing labor laws that choke the labor movement's ability to conduct free and fair due process during union elections and negotiations. Especially when all we are really seeking is a level playing field," he said.  



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