LGBT unionists fighting on several fronts

Pride at Work, an AFL-CIO affiliate, is a group of labor union activists who seek full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) workers in their workplaces and their unions.

The group has fully mobilized this month, Pride Month, to bring its concerns into many gay pride activities.

Pride at Work continues as the lead plaintiff in National Pride at Work vs. Granholm. In 2004, Michigan amended its constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) then used that change to question the legality of providing state-funded domestic partnership benefits.

In May 2005, Pride at Work argued in its brief that domestic partnership benefits are a contractual relationship unrelated to marital status and are not pre-empted by the amendment. In September of that year a district court judge agreed, and issued a judgment in favor of Pride at Work.

The state of Michigan appealed. In February 2007 the Court of Appeals ruled that the amendment bans domestic partner benefit plans. Pride at Work is appealing the ruling, noting that it can be used to diminish the rights of all workers, not just LGBT people. Unmarried heterosexual couples, the group argues, should also be able to benefit from laws that protect domestic partners.

Nancy Wohlfirth, co-president of Pride at Work, said the group is also working hard for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. She noted that in 32 states there are no protections, whatsoever, on the books for LGBT workers and that a union contract for LGBT workers in those and other states will make it more difficult for employers to arbitrarily fire people for any reason, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Pride at Work is also, along with civil rights and labor activists, pushing Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). ENDA would outlaw discriminatory hiring and firing practices against LGBT people.

While federal law protects working people from discrimination based on religion, race, national origin, gender or physical ability, no federal law exists to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Supreme Court rules against public employees

The Supreme Court ruled June 14 that states could bar unions from using dues they collect for political purposes unless individual employees give their explicit approval. The decision overturned Washington state’s Supreme Court, which said the state’s largest teachers union had a right to use all dues money for lobbying and politics except when individual dissidents objected in writing.

On a practical level, the court decision does not stop unions from backing pro-labor candidates or causes. What it does, however, is give the right-wing, anti-union network something to cite when it pushes for more state restrictions on the use of dues money in the public sector.

Big 3 aiming for more cuts

Detroit’s Big Three automakers are seeking unprecedented concessions from the United Auto Workers union in a bid to narrow what they claim is a $30-an-hour labor cost disadvantage against companies like Toyota and Honda.

The push by General Motors, Ford and Daimler-Chrysler sets up a potential showdown with the United Auto Workers union.

In recent years, the union has agreed to work-rule changes and benefit cuts for its retirees designed to save the automakers billions of dollars a year. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger has argued that workers should not be the ones who bear the whole cost of any Detroit “restructuring.”

High court shafts home aides on overtime

The Supreme Court ruled earlier this month against a home health care aide from Queens, N.Y., and upheld federal regulations that exempt most home care workers from minimum wage and overtime protections.

In a 9-0 decision, the court rejected the arguments made by the home care aide, Evelyn Coke, that the Labor Department’s regulations should be invalidated because they conflict with Congress’ intent to broaden wage protections.

Labor unions and women’s groups are angry about the ruling because they feel it will push many of the nation’s 1.4 million home care workers into worse financial straits than they are already in.

Coke, 73, initially filed her lawsuit in 2002 against Long Island Care at Home, saying the company often did not give her time-and-a-half pay for overtime, even when she worked 24-hour stints at homes in Great Neck, Manhasset and other communities.

Grocery workers facing big battle

Grocery workers in Southern California are locked in battle with the Ralphs, Albertsons and Vons supermarket chains as they fight for new contracts.

Throughout the negotiations they have made clear that two of their main goals are a fair increase in wages and the elimination of the unfair two-tier wage system.

Workers at the chains haven’t had a wage increase in five years and the two-tier wage system creates a situation where two workers doing exactly the same job get paid drastically different wages. The supermarkets created this system in 2004 so they could slash wages and benefits for all newly hired workers. Today, over half of all California grocery workers belong to this second tier.

The latest “offer” from the companies, during the current round of negotiations, is no pay increases for anyone, regardless of tier, and creation of a new third tier.

Ohio workers rally for EFCA

In coordination with similar actions nationwide, workers throughout Ohio rallied this week in support of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the most sweeping, progressive reform of U.S. labor law since the passage of the Wagner Act in 1936.

In Columbus, 350 workers rallied at the Statehouse, June 14, demanding passage of the EFCA, which would require companies to recognize a union as soon as a majority of the workers in a potential bargaining unit indicate their support for the union by signing cards.

Keynote speaker Stewart Acuff, organizing director of the AFL-CIO, called for building a huge movement to pass the law.

“Every right that we have today was won by the sweat and blood, the struggles of the American working people,” Acuff said. “The time has come for American workers to have the rights promised them. The time has come for a movement for real civil rights for all American workers.

“Ten years ago, your boss, CEO, made around 14 times as much as you did,” Acuff continued. “Today, when you get your paycheck, your boss will take home over 400 times as much. That’s obscene! And the reason is clear — the corporate drive to suppress unions. The Employee Free Choice Act will change that. We’re here to make sure the politicians hear our call to pass it.”

Bill Hartley, a retired steelworker from Buckeye Steel in Columbus, said he attended because he’s seen firsthand why we need the EFCA. “We had the union at Buckeye, but the company threatened folks, lied, cheated, intimidated folks, shut down and reopened nonunion,” he said. “The workers there want and need the union, but they’re denied their rights. We need to pass EFCA to have real democracy for working people in this country.”

On June 18, trade unionists in Cleveland marched to Republican Sen. George Voinovich’s office at the federal building to demand that he support the act. They planned to deliver 20,000 letters they had gathered in support of EFCA to Voinovich’s office, only to find themselves blocked by federal marshals.

“This is the U.S. federal building isn’t it?” asked Gene Lighty, a steelworker from Lorain. “How can they say that we can’t go see our senator in the building that we own and pay our taxes for? That is our building, and Voinovich works for us!”

After a long, testy standoff, the marshals backed down, allowing a delegation to take the letters to Voinovich’s staff. Returning, Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the North Shore Federation of Labor, told the crowd, “We still don’t know for sure how he’ll vote, but he sure knows that we are here, that we’re not going away, and we sure have long memories. They know that he’d better go our way on this one or he’ll have some strong angry opponents in the next election.”

Later that night, the City Council of nearby Lorain voted unanimously to call for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. “This is a real victory for working people,” said Charles Johnson, organizer for the North Shore Federation of Labor. “This is just a first step of many, many more to come.”

This Week in Labor is compiled by John Wojcik (jwojcik Bruce Bostick contributed.