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Labour + Industry

BC Activist Fights the Union Busting States of America

In Madison, where labour rights are under siege, a BC unionist joins the protest.

Tom Sandborn 11 Mar

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for The Tyee. He welcomes feedback and story tips at [email protected].

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Protester at one of dozens of 'Save the American Dream' rallies across the U.S. on Feb. 28.

As tens of thousands of trade unionists and supporters prepare to rally in American state capitals this weekend to oppose union-busting legislation, one B.C. labour movement campaigner will be at ground zero.

Holly Page is in Madison, Wisconsin, representing her union, the BCGEU as a volunteer working at the rally organizing centre.

Page told The Tyee she's there not only to support U.S. public sector workers who are having their collective bargaining rights stripped away, but because "there is a real danger we could see similar attacks in Canada."

Wisconsin first of many potential dominos

The media spotlight has been on union fight-back efforts in Madison ever since Republican governor Scott Walker introduced his controversial "budget repair" bill on Feb. 11.

Tens of thousands of union members, students and other supporters have thronged the state capital for marches and sleep-ins protesting the proposed legislation, which would strip public sector unions of bargaining rights, while similar legislation is being proposed in other American states including Ohio, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Rhode Island, California, Nevada, Washington, Florida and Maine.

On the evening of Wednesday, Mar. 9, the Wisconsin State Senate invoked a procedural technicality to allow it to pass the bill despite the absence of quorum created when Senate Democrats fled the state to slow down the legislative process.

On Thursday, demonstrators who had blocked the doors of the capitol building earlier had been cleared away and the state assembly was considering the bill sent to them by the Senate. Streaming video of the historic stand off is available here.

Late the same day, the Wisconsin State Assembly passed Governor Walker's "budget repair" legislation by a vote of 53-42, with four Republican members voting with the Democrats against the bill.

Bill hobbles unions, sells off public assets

The AFL-CIO, America's largest labour central organization, is calling for cross-country demonstrations on April 4.

The Wisconsin bill would strip public service unions of many collective bargaining rights, require unions to re-certify frequently and in many other ways remove rights that unions have won in Wisconsin over the last century.

Writing in Thursday's Guardian, Michael Hudson and Jeffrey Sommers call the Republican bill "a shop of horrors that is just the opposite of actually repairing the budget." They note, for example, that the budget calls for selling off state power generation facilities in no-bid contracts to private companies that likely will then charge taxpayers far more for the power "in perpetuity."

The BCGEU's Page told The Tyee on Thursday that she has been moved and impressed by what she is seeing in Madison. "Everywhere I go, I see supportive posters in the windows of small businesses, and right now there are over 20,000 protesters in the streets of Madison. This morning most of the high school students in the city left class to march to the capital, with folks on the sidewalks cheering them on, calling out, 'Thank you.' We are expecting over 150,000 demonstrators this weekend."

Despite the fact that the anti-union bill exempted police and firefighters from its most draconian provisions, Page sees signs that even members of those public service unions are supportive. She talked about speaking with a sheriff with over 30 years experience, who told her what was going on in Madison, which he called principled, peaceful protest, was the greatest example of democracy he had ever seen.

"This is class war against working people," the sheriff told her.

Broad range of protesters

Page says that support for the fight back is not restricted to unionized workers. She reports seeing senior citizens, students, small business people and the unemployed all out in the streets of Madison to oppose the governor's bill.

One lonely state Republican Senator added his voice to the protests. Dale Schultz cast the only vote against the contentious bill, saying that collective bargaining needed to be retained in order to preserve labour peace. "Compromise is not a dirty word," he told his colleagues.

Page, who was dispatched to the Wisconsin capital by BCGEU president Darryl Walker, is a full time campaigner for BCGEU, which represents public sector workers in British Columbia.

She said her union president sent her because he "is concerned about what looks like a concerted attack on the rights of working people across the U.S."

"It's important to remember that Mike Harris's attacks in Ontario on working people and our rights were modeled on U.S. examples. There is a real danger we could see similar attacks in Canada."

BC rallies in support planned

In an email circulated widely among union activists in the province, retired mill worker Gene McGuckin, who once taught school in Wisconsin, asks that recipients contact the B.C. Federation of Labour and member unions and urge them to stage a local action this weekend, when union organized rallies are expected across the U.S.

The Fed is going to act, The Tyee has learned, but not this weekend. Evan Stewart, B.C. Fed media spokesman, told The Tyee his organization will be mounting a joint demonstration together with unions in Washington and Oregon State some time early in April.  [Tyee]

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