The Oklahoma Legislature recently voted to overturn a law that gave municipal workers in the state’s largest cities the right to collective bargaining. “This is another blatant attempt to silence those with no voice to speak for them,” said Sen. Richard Lerblance, a Democrat who voted against the bill.”
“Those workers (who lost their collective bargaining rights) will not have a voice on their jobs anymore,” said Jimmy Currie, president of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO.
While the loss of collective bargaining is a huge setback for any worker, losing that right doesn’t necessarily mean that workers have lost their voice on the job. For instance, in Texas, a right-to-work-for-less state where it’s illegal for most public workers to bargain collectively, some state employees through their union, the Texas State Employees Union, Communication Workers of America Local 6186, have managed to gain a voice on the job.
“If a united group of workers act like a union, they can have a voice on the job,” said Jim Branson, lead organizer for TSEU. “It’s not easy, but it can be done.”
TSEU, a statewide local of CWA with about 12,000 members, has managed to win some victories even though it has very few legal rights. In 2007, TSEU led a campaign that stopped the expansion of the state’s plan to privatize its health and human services. In doing so, thousands of public sector jobs were saved.
“That was a fight of organized workers, even though we weren’t a majority in the health and human services agency and we didn’t have collective bargaining contract,” Branson said. “But members mobilized like crazy. Their mobilization turned public opinion against the privatization plan, and when the contractor screwed up, the state had no choice but to fire it.”
During the campaign, TSEU members from all over the state spoke directly to their local government officials and succeeded in getting about 100 counties and municipalities to pass resolutions against the privatization plan. They also lobbied state lawmakers, marched, rallied, demonstrated, held press conferences, and spoke out at public hearings.
And during all of this, the union kept organizing. “We got workers, who had been sitting on the fence, to join the union.” Branson said. “We were able to maintain our presence in the agency even though a lot of workers were quitting in anticipation of being laid off because we never stopped organizing.”
Branson said that TSEU members have also won the right to have a collective voice in grievance hearings in agencies. “Even though we don’t have any collective bargaining agreement, the union can represent workers in grievance hearings, which means that individual workers don’t have to be on their own when faced with some kind of adverse personnel action,” Branson said. “We went to court and argued that the right to work law gives workers the right to join a union, and if workers have a right to join a union, then they have the right to be represented by the union. The court agreed.”
But it wasn’t just a court decision that gave TSEU members a voice on the job. “We have a voice on the job because we are an active and growing movement that puts a lot of emphasis on organizing and bringing new members into the union,” Branson said.
Branson said that representing workers in grievance procedures is a small part of what TSEU does. “We have agency caucuses, made up of activists union members, who meet regularly to formulate goals and plan actions for winning those goals,” Branson said. “From time to time, members of the caucus will meet with agency heads to discuss our goals, and when the Legislature is in session, caucus members will speak directly to lawmakers. We don’t win everything we want, but we’ve had our successes.”
TSEU wouldn’t have been able to give workers a voice on the job without the support that it has received from established union organizations. “When we were just beginning, we got a lot of help from the state AFL-CIO and the CWA, our international union,” Branson said.
That support remains strong. Last April when TSEU and advocates for state service held their demonstration against state budget cuts, unions from all over the state turned out members for the rally. More than a dozen CWA locals sent members to the rally. Unions like the autoworkers, steelworkers, sheet metal workers, and many others sent large contingents to the demonstration, which made it a huge success.