Building the Union in an Anti-Union Age

Building the Union in an Anti-Union Age

By Stewart Acuff and Robert Sarason

Vol. 9, No. 1, 1987, pp. 10-11

How does a labor union organize and represent a group of employees who neither have a collective bargaining contract nor any federal or state collective bargaining legislation under the protections of the National Labor Relations Act? In light of the Reagan Administration’s repeated efforts to gut the National Labor Relations Act, many national leaders have struggled with that question.

A group of state employees in Georgia is seeking an answer by organizing with the Georgia State Employees Association (GSEA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1985/AFL-CIO. Since public employees are not covered by federal law and since collective bargaining for public employees is illegal in Georgia (and most Southern states), GSEA Local 1985 is using other less traditional and more militant ways to organize and represent its constituency.

The short history of Local 1985 is full of creativity, democratic, mass actions, rank-and-file involvement, and sophisticated political maneuvering.

GSEA was founded in 1974 as an independent association for state employees. After years of frustration and limited effectiveness with state government the leadership decided in 1985 to affiliate with the Service Employees International Union. In September 1985 the local hired Stewart Acuff as executive director, who came to the local with a background in community organizing and labor organizing at Beverly Enterprises Nursing Homes.

Three hundred workers from every area of the state gathered for the founding convention in October 1985 in Milledgeville, home of the huge Central State Hospital. It was the largest labor gathering ever of state employees in Georgia. A significant part of the day was the adoption by all three hundred workers, after a two-hour discussion, of a legislative agenda.

Over the next two months, eighty workers in Rome met with their state legislators and thirty workers in Augusta met with their legislative delegation. On December 18 the new union brought one hundred hospital workers to the State Capitol to jam a legislative hearing and describe their working conditions and their proposed legislation to improve those conditions.

The Georgia Legislature began their annual forty-day session in January. By then, GSEA Local 1985 had put together a network of legislative activists from all over the state, recruited four legislative interns from Morehouse College, and made a number of friends in the Georgia Legislature–their first two bills had thirteen cosponsors. But the peak of the session for these state workers was Lobby Day on February 20. Some three hundred and fifty union members converged on the Capitol that day to personally push for better pay, a more equitable pay raise formula, less restrictive political activity rules for state employees, better sick leave and grievance legislation, and day care facilities for state employees.

Hilda Stonebreaker, the current president and former executive director who engineered the affiliation with SEIU, described the first Lobby Day and the entire first session as huge successes: “We got more money out of the governor than was recommended by the Merit System and his budget people. We got even a little more from the legislative appropriations committees, we passed a day care bill on the last day of the session, and we got a study committee created to look at two other bills. We got more than we expected. Even more importantly, the whole process of grassroots lobbying and flexing our muscles on Lobby Day was very empowering for our members. It gave them the sense that they had more political strength than they had ever considered.”

But Local 1985 wanted to be much more than just a good lobbying organization. The members wanted to hold and exercise power at the worksite–regardless of what the law said about collective bargaining for public employees. And that would take nuts and bolt organizing. The leadership decided to focus early organizing on employees of Georgia’s mental health and mental retardation hospitals and facilities.

The first target was Georgia Retardation Center in Metro Atlanta. After a three-month organizing drive twenty employees marched from the entrance to their admin-

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istrator’s office to demand meetings between management and employees and to demand informal recognition. Those employees took with them Herb Mabry, President of the Georgia AFLCIO, Richard Ray, President of the Atlanta Labor Council, and James Orange. organizing coordinator of the Industrial Union Department and a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

On that day in late January twenty workers met with their administrator for three hours, set a regular schedule of monthly meetings, and Local 1985 had a proven, workable organizing model.

With a significant subsidy from the international SEIU, Local 1985 hired two veteran organizers, Lou Sartor and Jean Davis, in February 1985 to organize Central State Hospital in Milledgeville.

By August, nearly half of the hospital’s 2,500 eligible workers were union members.

The drive had three major milestones. In June, fifty union members held a news conference in front of the facility outlining their reasons for organizing, detailing their grievances, and appealing to the community for support. The next month the union held a rally and picnic at a Milledgeville park. James Orange and Thunderbolt Patterson, an ex-professional wrestler, were guest speakers. About 1,900 workers came to eat barbequed chicken and show their support. Finally, on July 28, one hundred Central State Hospital workers gathered again at the facility’s entrance. This time the employees demanded meetings and informal recognition as their counterparts at Georgia Retardation Center had already done.

After a brief rally and a march of about fifty yards, they were met by the Central State police force. The officer in charge announced that all state employees who proceeded with the march would be detained and subject to dismissal and all non-state employees would be arrested for criminal trespassing. The marchers knelt in prayer, sang two songs, and Acuff stepped across the line into the hands of the police [at this writing, Georgia attorney general Mike Bowers was prosecuting Acuff]. The march turned into a picket line which stayed up the rest of the day.

Just a few weeks later, seven workers from Central State interrupted a Department of Human Resources board meeting to demand monthly meetings in Milledgeville. James Ledbetter, DHR Commissioner, granted the workers’ request on the spot. One day later, Ledbetter reversed the decision after Central State Superintendent Myers Kurtz drove to Atlanta and made a direct personal appeal to Ledbetter.

The union decided not to get bogged down in a lengthy fight in Milledgeville but to continue organizing at additional facilities and to use the pressure of more workers at more facilities organized to push the department. The local also hired a veteran organizer to work with employees at Gracewood Hospital in Augusta.

On October 2, 1986, two hundred workers from Central State, Gracewood, and the Georgia Retardation Center converged on Atlanta for the most militant and exciting action the union had held. The day started with workers crowding into the DHR Commissioner’s office to demand an immediate meeting and resolution of the grievances. Commissioner Ledbetter was out of town, but the group chanted and sang till they got a short meeting with Reuben Lasseter, DHR Director of Personnel. After that meeting the workers marched the three blocks to the Capitol for a rally which featured speakers from every major union in the Atlanta area. During the rally, six rank and file union leaders along with Rev. Fred Taylor of the SCLC met with members of Governor Joe Frank Harris’s staff.

Two weeks later, three hundred union delegates and members from all over the: state gathered in Augusta for their second convention. They set their legislative agenda, raised their dues so the local could hire a lawyer, attended workshops on grassroots lobbying and grievance handling, and made their 1987 plans.

Immediately after the convention, organizers Lou Sartor and Daisy Hannah (who had replaced Jean Davis) began a second organizing drive at Georgia Regional Hospital in Augusta and Mike Tatham began an organizing drive at Northwest Regional Hospital in Rome.

In January 1987, the legislative session began and the local is fighting for more pay and a more equitable pay raise formula, overtime pay, on-call pay, more political freedom, a state employee hazardous chemical protection and right-to-know act, and progressive changes in sick leave policy.

Before the legislature convened one hundred and fifty workers met in grassroots lobbying sessions in Rome, Gainesville, Milledgeville, and Augusta. Additionally, the local leadership has laid out their legislative agenda with the governor’s staff. After the governor in early January recommended a 2.5 percent raise for state employees, union members placed two hundred phone calls to members of the House and Senate appropriations committees to ask for more money. This was to be followed up with a second mass Lobby Day at the Capitol.

As the local grows in membership, as the number of organized worksites increases, as the union’s leadership becomes better versed in Georgia’s politics, and as the tactics are refined, the pressure will build and change will come.

Stewart Acuff is the executive director of GSEA/SEIU Local 1985. Robert Sarason is a regional coordinator of SEIU.