Organizers return to tactics of movement's heyday to deal with a changing economy and corporate anti-union strategies
T raditionally, summer in Montana is a hot time for vacationers, and the busy season for the folks who make a living serving those tourists.
But for a handful of workers, and the travelers who have come to help them settle things with the managers at three Flathead Valley businesses, the rising temperature this year is coming from meeting rooms and picket lines, and not from the sun beating down.
Photo: Jeff Powers|
Picketers rally to support union efforts at Lantis Enterprises' Heritage Place nursing home in Kalispell.
|It's Union Summer 1997, and thanks to the national AFL-CIO, 40 interns from across the country will be spending part of their summer vacation rabble-rousing in northwestern Montana.|
Burning with a sense of zeal, a Missoula-based union is looking to settle a score, to right the wrongs they say too many workers have suffered at the hands of corporations more concerned with profits than human rights.
They claim employees have been harassed and intimidated at Grouse Mountain Lodge and two Lantis Enterprises-owned nursing homes (a charge denied by the management), and that it's time for Valley residents to team up with their neighbors and turn back the tide in the seasonal resort communities.
This is not the first time such battle lines have been drawn in Western Montana, but since World War II, the war cry of unions has been heard pretty damn infrequently hereabouts.
Tensions ran high in Montana's mining towns in the late 1800s. Conflicts between company bosses and their workers were frequent; at that time, strife seemed endemic to the industrial revolution, and the process of extracting the minerals and metals upon which it fed.
Strikes were common and violent; picketers were shot upon by corporate gunmen. Labor leaders headed up organizing efforts under threats of beatings and hangings, which were occasionally carried out. Union supporters, likewise, sometimes used violence to promote their ends.
Photo: Jeff Powers
Olney resident Pam Whitaker says she was harassed into quitting her job at Grouse Mountain Lodge.
|Efforts to organize miners in Butte and other towns drew such movement "celebrities" as Industrial Workers of the World leader Big Bill Haywood, Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs and anarchist Red Emma Goldman to the state to rally the besieged workers.|
"Butte was one of the largest cities ever governed by members of the Socialist Party, and that fact was only one aspect of several attempts by workers in Butte and in the state to establish themselves as an independent force in Montana politics," writes Bozeman professor Jerry Calvert in the preface to his book on the labor movement in Butte, The Gibraltar.
"This protracted rebellion," Calvert continues, "opposed domination of the state by corporate power and represented a yearning for an alternative cooperative and democratic community."
But as unions achieved many of their goals over the next half-century-five-day, 40-hour weeks; workplace safety laws; minimum wages-they gradually lost momentum both nationally and across Montana. Unions' flirtation with third party (and often socialist) politics ended as labor found a home in the Democratic Party. Spontaneous strikes gave way to carefully-orchestrated walk-outs.
But in the fall of 1995, in its first contested election in decades, the AFL-CIO elected new officers with a more aggressive agenda, and the left wing of the movement was quick to herald the ascension of President John Sweeney as evidence of a resurgence of labor politics in the U.S.
"The losers were definitely part of the old guard," says Secky Fascione, who works for Missoula's Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local #427. "Sweeney was seen as a return to more aggressive tactics, and he pursued getting more money for organizers on the ground rather than for the business end."
Rank-and-file liberals have been quick to "capitalize" on the perception of a renewed union leadership at the helm. Now, they say, the labor movement is reaching back to its early 20th century roots in order to create a renaissance amid falling enrollments.
The AFL-CIO is bypassing conventional methods of union recruiting-such as straightforward workplace elections-in favor of more aggressive strategies, as well as rebuilding progressive coalitions of community groups, churches and civil rights organizations.
And the changes, once again, are reaching into Montana, where 40 interns are converging this summer to help organize workers in the Flathead Valley. Dubbed "Union Summer" and modeled after a civil rights project in the early '60s, the campaign is a fight to help Fascione's HERE union gain a foothold in the resort communities up north. And the politics being played out along that stretch of U.S. Highway 92 are a microcosm of the maneuverings on a national level.
I n the early 1900s, the hazards faced by Montana miners in the workplace ranged from injury to death. Signing a union card and paying dues meant risking one's job, but it also meant $100 in accident benefits and another $100 for funeral expenses. A U.S. Senate commission reported that 50 Butte miners were killed in 1910 alone, for an average of 4.2 fatalities a month.
The efforts made by those earlier miners, however, paid off in the form of stable, relatively strong industrial unions. For the better part of this century, Butte has sent one of the most solid Democratic, pro-labor delegations to the state legislature.
But since the end of World War II, the front lines of union organizing have moved, along with the state-and nation's-economy, out of the mining pits and into the service sector.
For employees embroiled in this summer's battle in the Flathead Valley, joining up with the union also seems to carry with it the risk of unemployment. But the benefits are more modern, and the risks workers face involve their quality of life, not the loss of life itself. For them, a successful organizing drive will mean the protections of federal law when bargaining for wages and benefits, and a grievance procedure for settling conflicts.
The fight in the Flathead has been simmering since 1995, when a group of employees at Whitefish's Grouse Mountain Lodge traveled to Missoula to speak with union organizers. According to former Grouse waitress Marcia Huys, now a Missoula resident and University of Montana student, there had been a change in management at the lodge and the workers were looking to have a say in how things were being done.
"There were four of us who initially met with Secky. We had all been there a minimum of five or six years-we were long-term employees," Huys says. "We had nobody to advocate for us, no say in what was going on. That's how it got started.
"In small towns that are so seasonal, employees are really over a barrel. We weren't out to drive business down because that's not good for anybody. We just wanted a voice to negotiate."
The employees' complaints are familiar union themes-what organizer Melissa Bangs calls "basic human rights." They want a living wage, affordable health care benefits, job security, respect and dignity. These are the same wishes echoed by employees at the other places where HERE is concentrating its energies this summer: two Lantis Enterprises-owned nursing homes, Kalispell's Heritage Place and Bigfork's Lake View Care Center.
HERE organizers charge that in response to employees' grumblings of dissatisfaction, Lantis Enterprises, as well as Grouse Mountain Lodge, engaged in an intimidation campaign geared at reducing union support among employees. By HERE's count, six Lantis employees and one Grouse Mountain Lodge employee have been fired for their push to unionize. Many others, they say, have been harassed into quitting.
One of those is Pam Whitaker, who says she began advocating for unionization when it became clear to her that management cared more about their needs than those of her family.
Ferrying two children back and forth on the 18 miles of U.S. Highway 92 that separate their home in Olney and the school in Whitefish, Whitaker had started working as a maid at Grouse in April 1992 with the clear understanding that her shift would end at 2:20 p.m. so she could pick up her kids. But when the lodge was understaffed, she says, her boss told her: "We're getting tired of hearing about the needs of your family."
Once she got involved with the union, she says, things took a turn for the worse. "Some of the bosses just made my life miserable," Whitaker says. "I just really believe that management got together and tried to figure out what would pull my strings, what would make me quit." Which is what she did last October.
Photo: Patia Stephens
Toby Slatter, operations director at Grouse Mountain Lodge, says unionizing in a seasonal tourist town is an ill-fated task.
|Toby Slatter, director of operations at Grouse Mountain Lodge, had no comment on Pam Whitaker's case, though he denies harassing anyone for union activities. "We recognize our employees' freedom to analyze and look at any type of proposal," he says.|
The employees meanwhile have complaints pending before the National Labor Relations Board. Lantis workers were to have their grievances heard this week, but the hearing was postponed for scheduling reasons. Complaints against Grouse are set to be heard in September.
Managers at both establishments say they are confident they will be exonerated by the board. "We'll deal with those in short order," Slatter says. And Lantis lawyer Joe Dressen, who also denies the union's charges, points out that the board has never found Lantis guilty of illegally firing any employee for union organizing.
T he Flathead campaign reflects a new set of strategies unions have been forced to come up with in recent years, in response to a changing economy and employers' anti-union tactics. Management has developed a whole new set of tricks since the days when corporate security forces clashed in the streets with striking workers, say labor organizers, and unions have to evolve to keep up.
"We've seen things like the invention of temp agencies, the 29-hour work week, or three part-time jobs, which means no job security, no seniority, no benefits and dirt wages that are not livable," says Melissa Bangs, a Missoula resident serving as coordinator for the Union Summer campaign.
These conditions have also set the stage for a changing union membership, Bangs says. Union recruiters no longer focus solely on the male-dominated industries, for instance, but now reach out to women, people of color and immigrants-in short, those who often work for traditionally non-union service-sector employers, like Lantis and Grouse.
AFL-CIO's recipe for revitalizing the movement also involves developing new, and often more aggressive, tactics.
Traditionally, recruiting has focused on workplace elections, which were hailed as a major victory for labor when they were established under the 60-year-old National Labor Relations Act. Using this approach, union reps would stand outside workplaces and collect enough signatures to show support for a union, then petition the National Labor Relations Board for a secret-ballot election.
But employers have learned to get around these elections with strategic hirings, firings and promotions, using loopholes in the law to nullify the votes.
The unions' answer was to invent the so-called "card-check" method. Employees are presented with cards designating the union as their "Bargaining Agent in matters of wages, hours and other conditions of employment." Once organizers have gathered cards signed by at least 50 percent of the employees at a business, they proceed straight to the employers to demand union recognition. If they don't get it, they mount an increasingly confrontational campaign of pickets, boycotts and door-to-door canvassing until employers cave in.
Another new union strategy serves the dual purpose of bringing fresh blood into the ranks and training workers who are interested in learning the nuts and bolts of organizing. For the second year in a row, the AFL-CIO is sponsoring Union Summer, modeled after the Freedom Summer of the '60s (when civil rights workers recruited Northerners to come to the Deep South and help black people register to vote), where interns are given about $500 as a stipend and a place to sleep in exchange for spending their time knocking on doors, walking picket lines and doing the grunt work of organizing.
A few weeks back, the first wave of Union Summer interns gathered in the Flathead, where they will spend nearly a month working to unionize Grouse and Lantis' businesses. Altogether, Western Montana will get 40 interns out of 600 being sent to 18 sites throughout the country.
"If we're going to stop the downward spiral of non-livable wages, non-existent benefits, disrespect on the job, we have to rebuild the labor movement," says Bangs. "In order to rebuild, the labor movement has to pass on to the next generation if we're going to survive. "
W hile local union organizers practically burst with enthusiasm about the new developments in the labor movement, that ardor is not universally shared. The managers at Grouse and Lantis, of course, are critical of the HERE union's methods, but so are other community members. Hostilities are palpable in the Flathead Valley these days, with heated Union Summer discussions taking place everywhere from the bars to city council meetings.
|Toby Slatter, of Grouse, says he believes the union has placed its own interests ahead of the workers, and that the new aggressive tactics prove his point.||
Photo: Jeff Powers
Ken Toole, of the Montana Human Rights Network, gives Union Summer interns a primer in right-wing politics to prepare them for door-to-door canvassing in Flathead communities.
"I find it extremely hypocritical when the union reps come in saying, 'We're interested in representing you as employees, we're concerned about your wages and benefits,'" he says. "They talk about equitable and fair wages, and then they take this aggressive stance. What they really seem to be saying is, 'We're coming in whether you like it or not.'"
Slatter, in support of his argument, refers to two letters which he says contain the signatures of 80 employees (out of 98 non-supervisory workers), asking the union to cease its efforts. One was sent directly to HERE, the other to state Attor-ney General Joe Mazurek. A third letter, dated July 22, 1997, appears to have been signed by more than 100 employees (out of 142 which Grouse claims are currently on staff) and was sent to local media. That three-paragraph missive states flatly that "We are happy with our jobs and our workplace. We do not appreciate the union making an example out of Grouse Mountain Lodge against the majority of the employees' wishes."
"Their original campaign involved three HERE heads. They set up a meeting and spoke with employees, who then registered with them in writing, asking them to cease," Slatter says, referring to the letters. "I should think that would be enough without bringing in a bunch of interns."
HERE organizer Melissa Case responds that such documents are not proof that the union is not wanted.
"There's no doubt in my mind that some people would sign a petition against us," she says. "People are scared in there; it's tense.
"When we're actually able to talk to people, and give our side of the story about what being in a union really means, and not what they hear at the lodge, then they saying things like, 'I'm too freaked out to join you in this fight, but keep going.'" Nevertheless, Slatter says, the way the union is going about its organizing drive does more harm than good.
"Really, they have no strong understanding of the businesses or employ-ees in this valley," he says. "They're college recruits from towns quite a ways from here, many at an age where they may not understand what it takes to run a business and do these jobs. And they're bringing these people in to talk to employees?"
Union Summer coordinator Bangs says that only seven of the first group of interns are Montanans. But she doesn't see this as important.
"Workers are workers everywhere," she says. "All people are struggling with the same problems."
But Slatter says his problem with the interns-and with the union's efforts in general-runs deeper. "They don't know the community. They don't know the business," he says. "I think everyone is concerned. The perception at the community level is that people are perplexed as to why they're here, and what they hope to accomplish in a seasonal, resort operation." "