Friday, June 26, 2009

UE uses international solidarity to fight anti-union law in North Carolina

Labor unions in this country are developing the global strategies they're going to need to fight for worker rights in a global economy. That became clear to me during one of the best panels I attended at the recent "Class Matters" conference of the Working Class Studies Association in Pittsburgh.

Let's look at the fight against North Carolina General Statute 95-98, a relic of the old segregationist, anti-union 1950s that saw late rabid right-winger and later U.S. Senator Jesse Helms first step onto the public stage, A right-to-work state with traditionally the lowest rate of unionization in the country--and my native state, by the way--North Carolina with this law effectively denied state and local government workers the right to collective bargaining that Franklin Roosevelt guaranteed other workers during the Great Depression. Virginia is the only other state with such a law.

Workers in North Carolina, particularly black and other minority workers,have protested this statute for years. Among the groups waging war against it is the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, better known as UE, a legendary "rank-and-file" union that has been fighting for working people since the 1930s.

During the panel titled "Labor Strategies in a Globalized Economy" at the Pittsburgh conference, Robin Alexander of the UE told how her union and other activist groups are using international law to discredit NC General Statute 95-98. "The state is acting illegally," she said. The UE joined with unions in Mexico, Quebec, and Japan to show some international solidarity with sanitation workers and groups in North Carolina like the Black Workers For Justice in the fight against the statute. The fact that these international unions come from countries that trade with North Carolina has been an important factor in getting state pols' attention. Formal complaints have been filed with the governor, and legislation has been proposed for repeal of the statute. "We have built an amazing coalition," Alexander said.

Here's wishing them success. As you may recall, UE Local 1110 won a big victory last December after a six-day, 1930s-style sit-in and occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago. An agreement by Republic, its lenders, and the union promised eight weeks' pay, vacation pay, and extended health care benefits to workers who had protested a sudden shutdown of the plant with only three days' notice.

By the way, if you'd like to know more about UE's interesting history, check out "Them and Us: Struggles of a Rank-and-File Union" by early UE leader James J. Matles and writer James Higgins. Loving the title, I picked up the book at the Townsend Booksellers book store in Pittsburgh. It's a great account of UE's role in the nascent CIO and its battle with the staid old leaders of the AFL as well as with corporate bosses.

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