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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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Comments:

picture of those selfish scum makes me nauseous.

Comment #1 by Odd Job on 2013 08 31

Unions are so wonderful - right Detroit?

Teachers unions - children are less educated and aware of reality than ever.

Public sector unions - the state is doing so well financially paying these benefits and pensions.

Private sector unions - Ask the former Brown and Sharpe, United Wire, Allied Signal, Uniroyal et al employees how their union helped them.

Might as well change the date of Labor Day to May 1st so the Marxist can have an orgasm.

KK

Comment #2 by Killary Klinton on 2013 08 31

I think Walmart and Fedex executives should be held responsible for the lack of human dignity "wages and hours" placed on their employees. The only people who do not like unions are people who are not in one!

Comment #3 by THOMAS Murray on 2013 08 31

Like all human institutions, labor unions can be good or bad - sometimes at the same time.
KK - should we call all corporations evil and corrupt because many are? Why then should all labor unions be slapped with the same label when many have done and continue to do good things for their members and their communities?
It is an unfortunate truth that the labor-management-capital triad is often an adversarial relationship. None should have unrivalled power, but capital (the financial sector) has had that for some time now. Labor, on the other hand, has been steadily weakened (often due to its own leadership's actions). This imbalance has contributed to the erosion of the middle class and the increasing financial disparity between the top and the bottom of society.
Balance needs to be restored among these three economic sectors if our economy is to recover fully and thrive. A little more cooperation wouldn't hurt, either.

Comment #4 by Michael Furtado on 2013 08 31

All of this just proves that I have allowed myself to live too long...

Comment #5 by Jon Polis on 2013 08 31

On Labor Day:

Begging to be treated with dignity and receive a livable wage has long since passed. When 400 people at the top control as much wealth as 150 million people at the bottom, the problem is capitalism. When people lose everything they’ve worked for through boom-and-bust cycles, the problem is capitalism. When society is organized to serve a handful of plutocrats and their profit-making machinery, the problem is capitalism. When each generation has to fight to keep a fair share of the wealth they produce, and what was won by their parent’s generation, the problem is capitalism. When the next generation of workers will have a lower standard of living than the previous, the problem is capitalism. When we make war on other nations and kill other workers, to enrich one-percent of the population, the problem is capitalism.

The workings of the system of capitalism-imperialism compels the U.S. to seek and dominate more and more of the planet through war, financial and market manipulations and debt peonage. People and countries are driven to despair and destitution as competing blocks of capital traverse the globe taking control of and plundering more and more of the world's wealth, labor and resources. Sovereign nations, their economies and people are integrated, subsumed and subordinated into a worldwide system of depredation, oppression and exploitation that has no regard - and can't have - for people, patrimony or the planet.
It's a system that can never be made socially conscious and benign - or reformed. It has its own nature, logic, compulsions and trajectory, which will not and cannot be transformed - except through revolution. And it must be overthrown and dismantled by the conscious actions of a revolutionary people, in their millions, armed with an understanding of why things are this way and what it will take to change it.

Things do not have to be this way, should not be this way, and won’t always be this way.

Comment #6 by Johnny cakes on 2013 08 31

Johnny cakes,

Without capitalism, entrepreneurism and the motive to profit from one's effort, would there be companies to build -- and then unions to work at them?

No.

I don't know of any unions that have started companies and employed people. They just come in after something has been set up. They don't innovate or initiate.

The Cuban paradise awaits. Go for it.

Comment #7 by Art West on 2013 08 31

I appreciate Michael F's civil and responsible post. The hatred expressed by some for unions and others for corporations is both excessive and counterproductive.
While both have abused power at times if they were strong enough, we need both to organize the economy and ensure reasonably fair results.
One union weakness is its stop down approach to most everything which has kept the rank and file uninvolved. Another is the movement's failure at effective outreach even as it was relentlessly under attack by the employers and their right-wing supporters, resulting in young people especially, unaware of what life was like for working people before unions, increasingly hostile to them. I think the union big-shots got too comfortable with their high salaries and too complacent.

Comment #8 by barry schiller on 2013 08 31

What are our leaders doing to bring jobs here over the last several years? any takers?

Comment #9 by anthony sionni on 2013 08 31

Art West

I’m sorry to hear that capitalism is the pinnacle and highest form of society, and its organization, that will ever exist. Think about what you are saying.

Ultimately, you are saying that without capitalism, entrepreneurism and the profit motive, societies would not or could not develop. How silly you sound. I’ll bet this was a question on the NECAP, and you answered it correctly.

While I don’t support what is called socialism in Cuba, I wonder what it might have looked like without a 54-year U.S. embargo and repeated attempts to assassinate its leadership and subvert the island’s economy by what can only be called U.S. gangsterism.

Comment #10 by Johnny cakes on 2013 08 31

Art

What I didn’t mention is right next door to Cuba is Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A concentrated expression of “free market” capitalism, entrepreneurship and the profit motive.

Comment #11 by Johnny cakes on 2013 09 01

political and union leadership set the tone of greed and intimidation years ago and has progressively gotten more disgusting and violent.

Comment #12 by LENNY BRUCE on 2013 09 02

The unions were good when big business was out of control and not providing the middle class a decent wage. That was then, today the pendulum has swung too far to the left. With declining memberships in the private sector, the unions went after the public sectors in the 60's and today have brought government to the verge of bankruptcy. Today it is the taxpayers against the unions. They just don't know when to stop pushing for more and more.
It is interesting to read Riley of the UFCW fumble around the healthcare issue. The unions were big supporters of Obamacare - now they are having second thoughts. Where is George Nee in all of this? Have not heard a toot from big boy.

Comment #13 by Gov- stench on 2013 09 03

Private unions that negotiate against management at arms length aren't a problem. Public unions that target and remove any "management" that won't give them what they want are a real problem. Government politicians that make promises that won't have to be paid for twenty years are a real problem which is being evidenced all around America as cities file for bankruptcy. The problem with private unions is their blind support of public unions as they work to drive America into the ground.

We need to get rid of a politicians ability to offer unaffordable benefits that won't be felt by today's taxpayers, but by their children and grandchildren. All contract costs should be built into today's tax structure. That way today's taxpayers can decide what service's we can actually afford and are willing to pay for.

Comment #14 by Redd Ratt on 2013 09 03

@ Johnny cakes

To work for what one has is the pinnacle and basis for a society. That is capitalism. If I can trade my goods and/or services for someone else's that is capitalism.

If we people don't benefit from their labor they are called slaves. You seem to think that, that all should benefit the same amount. I'm sorry but the floor sweeping kid's service is not equal in value to the doctor's. If you are going to give them the same things why would the doctor or anyone else with a skill set do anything more than sweep the floor?

Comment #15 by Wuggly Ump on 2013 09 06




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