SEATTLE - Tom Geiger, communications director of Local 21 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, told journalists Friday at the 2011 convention of the International Labor Communications Association how labor and its allies were able to get this city to guarantee paid sick days for all its workers.
Seattle's mayor signed the historic bill Friday. Every worker in the city, depending upon his or her conditions of employment, is now guaranteed five to nine sick days per year. Employers with less than four workers are exempted.
"The key to this victory was unions working closely with groups outside of the labor movement to get something done," Geiger said. The UFCW was one of the unions most active in the campaign for passage of the bill.
"We went everywhere," he said. "We'd walk into a restaurant or a fast food place and ask people whether they knew that there were 190,000 people living in this city who could never take a sick day."
Geiger said the medical community responded to labor's outreach too. "They were great. There were ads showing how going to work sick is bad policy for the company and how it hurts the health of everyone else."
Geiger was one of four labor leaders who comprised a panel designed to familiarize journalists with the struggles of workers in the state of Washington.
The other three panelists focused on the uphill battles facing workers in the region.
Terri Mast, the national secretary-treasurer of the Inland Boatmen's Union, described how 1800 workers on the Puget Sound ferries are fighting unprecedented attacks. She said the union got most of what it wanted in its last arbitrated contract and the right wing was determined to undo that.
Channel 5, which Mast described as a right-wing local TV station, started attacking items in that contract. The series, Waste on the Water, said workers were overpaid. Other claims made in the series were on issues that had been resolved years ago, Mast said, and were put into the series to whip up feeling against the workers.
Legislators, meanwhile, were in campaign mode and took up the anti-worker campaign in the ferry-serviced districts on Puget Sound.
In January, the union was at the bargaining table having to deal with a "mountain" of legislative proposals that cut salaries, and, Wisconsin-style, took away bargaining rights. The union ended up taking a 3 percent wage cut, hoping the attack bills would be withdrawn.
Although many Democratic lawmakers sided with the ferry workers others went along with Republican attacks and the captains of the ferry boats ended up losing their collective bargaining rights.
"The Wisconsin style attacks were here, despite our high union density," said Mast. Our members have said enough is enough and at some point those ferries might just stop in the water," she said.
Tim Welch, director of public affairs for the Washington Federation of State Employees described what public service workers are up against. He described how the mentally ill they served are literally being thrown out into the streets in Seattle and how public workers are being pushed to accept less and less. "Our opponents tell other people, essentially, that the economy would by OK if we just reign in those public service workers." Welch's union, which is part of AFSCME, has a solid reputation for making democratic reforms, not the least of which was the elimination of the patronage system in the state, and fighting for the rights of minority workers and women.
Beginning in February, Welch said, the union launched campaigns to make the public aware of the effects of the cuts. Thousands responded and filled the halls of the state capital in Washington, he said. "It wasn't to the degree that happened in Wisconsin, but it did indeed happen, even though the major media, nationally, wasn't paying attention."
Welch said that the challenge labor faces here is that the attack is "incremental and gradual. Scott Walker tried the all-at-once neutron bomb approach but here it is gradual and insidious. In some ways this is even a bigger challenge."
He said the union is mobilizing for the 2012 elections because " a defeat there would mean we are really in trouble. Those elections will be do or die for us."
Carino Barragan Talancon, lead organizer for Casa Latina, said her group, which represents immigrant workers, has officially affiliated with the Washington State Labor Council.
Wage theft, she said, is a major issue for immigrant workers in this state. "We have joined unions and community groups to form the Stop Wage Theft Coalition," she said, "and it gives us a long-term strategy to deal with the situation."
Talancon said her group has launched specific campaigns to win back wages, describing how they helped a janitor who was told his first month's wages were a deposit and then, after two months was still not paid. He finally started to get checks but they were always two and a half months behind. He went to Casa with his complaint and the group realized the employer was a repeat offender, so they launched a campaign against the company.
Casa did picketing and is in the midst of the campaign now.
The group was able to get the city of Seattle to pass an ordinance that criminalizes wage theft. "The task now, is to get people prosecuted for violating that ordinance," she said. The ordinance provides for fines, jail time and removal of business licenses when contractors steal wages.
Photo: (L - R) Tim Welch, Carino Barragan Talancon, Tom Geiger Terry Mast. John Wojcik/PW