Rich Trumka, AFL CIO President, with locked-out AFSCME 3494 workers.
Effingham: From Organizing to Contract
I never expected to hear the word “Effingham” pronounced in the middle of a sentence in Vietnamese, but it has now happened numerous times. I used the Effingham story, in which the workers at Heartland Health Services organized as AFSCME 3494, to tell the story of a US union organizing effort from start to finish, and it seems to have made a strong impression. The first reaction of students was that they couldn’t believe that workers could survive a struggle that lasted four years. Some of them said they felt it wasn’t worth it. The next wave of reactions was about how severely adversarial labor relations are in the US. Since it looks as if under TPP, labor relations in Vietnam are going to become more like labor relations in the US, this was a lesson worth teaching. So now I hear the word “Effingham” spoken now and then, in a way that makes me smile.
The fact that we had pictures probably helped make the strong impression. The pictures in this posting are ones that I took while it was going on. Our labor ed program at Illinois was actively supportive of this struggle. The women leaders whom I mention came to our POlk Conference, which is another story which I won’t tell here.
This is the handout that we got translated, by Tony Dang (thanks, Tony!) and distributed on the day we presented this story in Ms. La’s class. We later handed it out in other classes, too.
The importance of local social context and politics
Why the workers started to organize
Forming a local union and contacting a national union
Bargaining with an employer who does not bargain in good faith
The importance of building community support and mobilizing it
The role of the mediator
The role of the Labor Board
The workers go on strike
The workers are locked out
Appealing to the legislature
The workers win a decent contract and go back to work
What did the contract do? Changes in the collective relationship
What did the contract do? Changes in individual relationships
Was it worth it?
The Social Context: A politically conservative town with a right-wing local government
This happened between 2005 and 2009.
The town of Effingham, Illinois, is a working-class, low-income town of about 12,000 located in Central Illinois. It is surrounded by farms that grow corn and soybeans. At one time these were family farms. Now they are owned by big agricultural companies. It is a very white town – only a generation ago, it was a “sundown” town where Blacks were not welcome after dark.
Although the average income is low, there is a wealthy upper capitalist class. These are the “town fathers” who own business that have been located in Effingham for many years. They are so anti-union that when a company that made brakes for Toyota cars offered to come to town, the city council rejected its application because the pay for workers would be higher than the average wage and this would create pressure to raise other wages.
The workplace where this struggle took place is called Heartland Health Services, an officially nonprofit, but private, enterprise. It provides a broad spectrum of mental health services to people in the region, with money contracted from government at various levels. Counseling, drug addiction, and developmental services are provided. There is a residential program. There is a class difference between the people who use Heartland and the families of the “town fathers.” Heartland patients are mainly low-income, working class people. The wealthy families send their members out-of-state to fancier hospitals in big cities.
Workers at Heartland are working-class, too. About 160 people worked at Heartland when the union was first organized. Jobs at Heartland were steady, reasonable jobs and people said Heartland was one of the few places in the region where you could get a good job. You could work there and believe that you were helping someone. Some of them had been working at Heartland for twenty or thirty years. They had many friends in the community.
This picture was taken the day Rich Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, came to Effingham to talk with the workers. This is in the AFSCME 3494 office. The man on the right is Henry Bayer, Illinois state-level AFSCME president.
How Changes in the Healthcare Industry Impact Healthcare Delivery and Workers in Healthcare
Two things were going on in the healthcare industry at this time. First, the cost of healthcare was increasing at about 12% per year. These changes affected regular people, who could not afford to buy insurance to cover medical costs and could not afford to go to a doctor at all without insurance. They also affected companies that provide healthcare. Many insurance companies stopped covering mental health. They also increased the kind of paperwork required for a healthcare provider to get reimbursed from an insurer.
Second, the government, which paid for a lot of the healthcare costs for veterans, retirees, the disabled or the unemployed, was cutting back how much they would pay. The fees paid to doctors for seeing a patient, for example, were cut.
In order to adapt to the rising cost of healthcare in the face of government cutbacks, many directors of healthcare facilities changed how they billed patients and how they paid workers. They also changed the ways they supervised workers. This allowed them to pass on the costs of delivering healthcare to the workers, by cutting pay, intensifying work and placing the burden of uncertainty on the workers. Examples of this would be not paying a therapist if a patient cancelled an appointment, or requiring a worker to keep his or her cell phone nearby all night in case of an emergency call, without pay.
The Director of Heartland made a strategic mistake when she decided to implement many of these changes all at once.
Why the workers started to organize
In the US, if a workplace does not have a union, the employer can do almost anything they want. While we have a minimum wage and some fair labor standards, we rely on collective bargaining to give workers real protections and make sure the minimal laws we have are enforced. Without a union, an employer can fire you without warning and without giving any reason. There are a few exceptions to this, but this is mainly the case. So when the Director decided to implement many changes in the workplace at once, she was legally allowed to do that because there was no union or CBA there.
Workers still talk about the day when the Director “dropped the bomb.” The Director obviously had not expected a friendly reception to her announcement, because she told all the employees to meet in the basement and then called the police to have them waiting upstairs outside in case there was “trouble”.
She told the workers about many changes that she was making. All of these were her own decision, done without consulting the workers. People who had accumulated a lot of vacation days by working many years and not always taking all the vacation they had accrued would lose most of those vacation days. People who were part-timers would lose their health insurance coverage. Instead of being paid for every hour of therapy that was scheduled, workers would only get paid if the patient showed up. Since many depressed or drug-troubled patients miss appointments, this meant that the therapist would be fined for something that he or she couldn’t control. Also, workers would be ‘on call’ all night, but only get paid if they were called, and if they were called and had to work at night, they still had to work in the daytime. These were just some of the changes.
The Workers Form an Organizing Committee and Contact a National Union, AFSCME
The workers were very angry. The fact that the Director had summoned the police was very insulting. For several weeks, no one knew what to do.
Three or four of the workers had either worked in a union workplace or else knew someone who had. This information was very important. People are not taught about unions in school, so unless someone knows someone who has been in a union, they probably don’t know what it means. So these workers got together and talked. Then they went around to the other workers and explained what a union would do and why they all needed a union. They formed an organizing committee of about 12 people.
Other workers got the idea quickly. When most of the workers had been talked to, the organizing committee telephoned the office of a big union, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) and asked them if they would help. AFSCME’s regional director said yes and came to meet the organizing committee.
With AFSCME’s help, the workers started collecting signature cards, authorizing the union to ask for an election. Under US law, if 30% of workers sign these cards, the organizers can file a petition with the Labor Board and ask for an election. However, most organizers will try to get 80% signatures, because, out of fear, many workers will change their minds at the last minute in response to the employer’s anti-union campaign, which is legal. Also, some workers will lie to the union organizing committee and say they are in favor of it but in reality, they don’t know what they will do when it comes time to vote.
Employers usually run a very aggressive campaign against an organizing effort. They try to scare the workers into voting against the union or else promise them good things if they vote the union down. This director did not do that. She didn’t believe the union would win. She didn’t think the workers knew how to organize. She was wrong. The election was held only four months after the Director “dropped the bomb”, and 80% of the workers voted to have a union. The Labor Board certified the union.
Now the workers had a union, but no contract. In the US, workers have one year to bargain a contract with the employer. If they can’t get a contract, the employer may try to decertify the union by forcing them to hold a new election. So the first year deadline is very important.
Trying to Bargain With An Employer Who Does not Bargain in Good Faith
Under US law, union and employer have to “bargain in good faith,” meaning that they have to seriously engage in bargaining that moves towards agreeing on a contract. They are not legally required to reach an agreement or settle a final contract, as is required in some countries, including Viet Nam. Unfortunately, the Director at Heartland did not understand what it means to “bargain in good faith.” She would try to meet only once every two weeks. She would cancel meetings. When she came to a meeting she would say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to read your proposal, we’d better postpone this meeting.” Months went by and the one-year deadline approached and nothing was being accomplished. The workers’ negotiating committee was careful to always show up for meetings prepared so that she would not be able to blame them for the lack of progress.
AFSCME had opened an office in downtown Effingham where the workers could gather and talk with each other. They held open trainings for members, so that all the workers understood what was going on. They also assigned two staff people to work with the organizing committee. One of the staffers would participate in the contract negotiations when they took place, although the President of the union, an older woman and senior worker named Louise Messer, was the chief negotiator. Several other workers, Anna Beck, Gail Warner, and Azure Newman, played important roles as organizers and leaders.
This is Gail Warner, leading a song on the picket line.
AFSCME knew that this was going to be a long struggle because of the politics of the town and the region. They knew it was going to be hard. But it was important for them to win and get a good contract because they represented workers in public healthcare all over the US, and Heartland was a case of work that had been public but now was privatized, a trend that is part of the neoliberal agenda. So this was a case of “chasing the work” across the line between public and private, something that AFSCME has had to do more and more. There are parallels in Viet Nam between work that was state-owned (SOE) and has been equitized (sold in shares, sometimes to past employees and sometimes to various kinds of investors).
The Union Builds Community and Labor Movement Support
The workers organized within the town and regionally to get public support for their struggle. They talked with their patients and got them to understand what the problem was. They organized meetings at their churches. They printed T-shirts that said, “We want a fair contract” and sold them to raise money. Workers wore buttons at work, to let people know they were involved in the union. They held pot-luck dinners at the union office to keep their spirits up.
Because AFSCME is a very big union, the workers at Heartland were able to reach out to other workplaces where the workers were represented by AFSCME. These included cities and county office workers all over the state as well as healthcare workers. Members of the organizing committee learned how to speak at rallies and big public meetings. They came to workers’ events in Chicago. They got on TV and on the radio. They invited the president of the AFL-CIO to come and meet with them in Effingham, and he did. This made the national news.
But none of this forced the Director to come to the table and bargain in good faith.
The Workers Invite a Mediator to Come and Help
After a few months, AFSCME called up the FMCS (Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service) to see if they could help. The FMCS was established in 1948 as part of some labor legislations known as Taft-Hartley. The purpose of the FMCS is to help unions and employers deal with problems that can be solved by good negotiations. This is to prevent strikes and the other disruptive troubles that can be caused by labor disputes. When workers go on strike, they lose wages, people lose services, employers lose production and the overall economy becomes unstable. Therefore the government is interested in preventing crises like this. The FMCS will send a mediator to deal with a situation where there is a crisis and will make suggestions that both parties should be able to follow. This is similar to the function of a mediator in Viet Nam with an important difference. In Vietnam, the mediator’s proposal must be implemented. In the US, the mediator’s proposal is advisory.The Vietnamese word that is translated as “mediator” actually means a combination of mediator and arbitrator (arbitrators in the US work in a separate, private system, and their decisions are binding, not advisory), although since the decision of the mediator/arbitrator in Vietnam can be appealed through government channels, it is not strictly binding.
The mediator came to Heartland. He listened to the workers and to the Director and, based on these conversations and his own experience dealing with many other union contracts in similar industries, he proposed a whole first contract. This contract would have covered the whole relationship between workers and the employer at Heartland. It did not merely resolve one type of problem.
However, when the mediator made a suggestion for a contract that was acceptable to the workers at Heartland, the Director rejected it.
The Role of the Labor Board
The mediator agreed that the Director was not bargaining in good faith. Under some conditions, the failure to bargain in good faith is clearly a violation of labor law and a charge can be filed with the Labor Board as an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP). If the Labor Board agrees that the employer is committing a ULP, it can extend the clock so that the union has more than one year to get a contract. It can also issue a bargaining order to make the Director bargain.
However, the Labor Board did not agree that the employer was committing a ULP. The Labor Board actually refused to accept the charge and respond to it. This was at a time when, under President George Bush, appointments to the Labor Board had become extremely politicized and this particular Labor Board in St Louis, Missouri, had a very right-wing Board. Exactly why the ULP charge was rejected was never discovered.
This left the union with no alternative but to go on strike.
The Workers Go On Strike
The Heartland workforce is mostly women, fundamentally caregivers rather than fighters. Within the span of two years they had gone from being a fairly satisfied workforce to being angry enough to go on strike. They set up a picket line outside the Heartland building and staffed it every day.
During the strike, most workers stayed involved. Only five crossed the picket line. Some workers had to get other jobs and could only participate a few hours a week. But others made the strike the center of their lives. They made the union office downtown a second home. They cooked dinners there and shared food and news. They held rallies, spoke with the local media, got on the radio, passed out flyers, and went door-knocking through the town. Teachers from the teacher’s union, who had an office near Heartland, walked their picket line, let them use their bathrooms, and gave them money. Community organizations brought food to the union office, donated money, provided other kinds of help.
As winter came, workers set up a strike hut in front of Heartland and staffed it. They had propane heaters once the snow fell. The few employees who had crossed the picket line, and the new employees who had been hired since the strike, had to drive past the strike hut and workers on strike would go and try to talk with them.
The strike got a great deal of publicity. Legislators in the state government were aware of it and were following it closely.
Workers Offer to Go Back In and are Locked Out
According to US law, if workers and employers cannot agree on a contract by one year after the union is legally recognized and certified, the employer can force another vote. This time, only the people who were still working would vote. All the workers who were out on strike could not vote; the people who were inside, including the new hires, would vote. In a vote like that, the anti-union forces would definitely win. If this happened, the union would cease to exist as a legally recognized organization.
Therefore the workers offered to stop their strike and go back in.
On the last day before the end of the year, the workers marched back in together and stood in the lobby at Heartland. The union president announced that they were willing to go back to work without any conditions.
The Director told them that they were not welcome and that they should get out. They were “locked out.”
The workers, shocked and surprised, went back outside and gathered at the union office downtown to decide what to do.
The Workers Expand their Strategy: Appealing to the state legislature
The workers did not give up. They continued to picket and staff the strike hut, which had been vandalized and painted with obscene graffiti. They also expanded their strategies. Busloads of fellow AFSCME members from Chicago came down and held rallies. Since many workers in Chicago are Black, this meant that there were crowds of black people in Effingham, a city that was unfamiliar with seeing Black people.
They also searched for other community health organizations that might take over the work of Heartland. They found one, in a nearby town, but it was too small to handle the patient load.
They appealed to the State of Illinois to stop funding an agency that was abusing labor laws. After all, most of the funding that Heartland received was government money. The State responded by doing an audit of Heartland and found that in fact, there was a substantial amount of missing money. The state then withheld some funding. This made news and embarrassed the Board of Directors.
Effingham was also made “the poster child” for a new federal labor law proposal that would have required that first contracts go to arbitration, if not settled at the bargaining table and both parties would have to sign. This law was called EFCA, The Employee Free Choice Act. The AFL-CIO invited activists and leaders from the Heartland struggle to come and speak at their national convention. People all over the country knew about Heartland.
All of this made news. The local paper and TV showed people marching, holding rallies, and speaking to the state legislature.
Finally, the Board of Directors of Heartland Health Services did something that made a difference: They fired the Director and replaced her with someone who was willing to negotiate seriously.
Workers Go Back to Work with a Decent Contract
Within a month, the new Director signed a contract. It was very much like the one the mediator had recommended two years earlier. So four years after they started the struggle, Heartland workers finally went back to work.
By now, Heartland only employed 50 or 60 people. It had lost money, patients, and workers. It had been a hard and costly fight on both sides. Some people had dropped out or the fight, found other jobs, moved out of town. While some people felt that the struggle had been “the best experience in my life,” others were burned out from stress.
The ones who went back to work had to work side-by-side with people who had either crossed the picket line or had been hired while the rest of the workers were on strike or locked out. The emotions that were felt by everyone were very strong. Who would sit with whom at lunch? How could they work as a team? Tempers sometimes burst out and people said and did things in anger or sadness.
The four years of the struggle divided the old and new workers not only by what they had done but by what they had learned. The workers who had gone on strike had seen what employers will do to retain control; they were not innocent any more.
Anna Beck, one of the leaders of the striking workers, reported that after they went back in to work, the hardest thing was to convince that employer that they really had a contract now and the employer had to respect and follow it.
What Did the Contract Do?
A great deal of suffering could have been avoided if the union and the employer had just signed that contract.
But what did the contract do? What did it provide for the workers?
It provided two kinds of changes in the social relationships between workers and employer. The first kind was changes in the collective relationship between all the workers and the employer. The second kind was the changes between individual workers and the employer.
Changes in the collective relationship between workers and employer
A contract usually starts out by defining “the bargaining unit.” This establishes who is represented by the union. The bargaining unit has a relationship with the employer that is defined by law and implemented by the union through bargaining. What happens to the bargaining unit matters to the union.
Most importantly, the existence of a recognized union with a CBA commits the employer to treat workers as members of a collective. As members of a collective, workers have certain rights that they do not have as individuals. The employer may not set up new practices impacting workers and/or the union without giving the union an opportunity to bargain over them first. When the employer “dropped the bomb” back in 2005, she was changing all the working conditions without bargaining them, which an employer can do if there is no union. This would never have happened if the workers had had a union.
Under a union contract the power of management to manage has been somewhat constricted and a bit of that power now resides with the union, if it can remain strong, active and organized enough to take that power. For example, all members of the collective must be treated equally. All members of the collective have the right to representation in a labor dispute. All members of the collective are protect against retaliation by the employer for engaging in union activity. In Viet Nam, workers also are protected against retaliation.
This contract as bargained also gives the union some resources needed to carry out its responsibilities. The union gets ten days per year of paid time to send members to conferences and conventions, which they union can distribute any way they like.
The contract sets out some aspects of how the union will do its work. In the case of AFSCME 3494, the union got to choose four stewards, or worker representatives, who got paid time to work on problems involving workers, called “grievances.” These stewards could be chosen by election, by volunteering, or by appointment. Under US labor law, the employer cannot interfere with who is chosen or how. The stewards have access to a phone and a private meeting place, and the employer has to meet with them and work on the problems. If the steward and employer can’t resolve the problem, it can be sent to mediation and ultimately arbitration, which is enforceable. This is called a “grievance procedure” and is often what the union gets in exchange for agreeing not to go on strike over the life of the contract. Not surprisingly, there was a no-strike article in the new Heartland contract.
The Heartland contract also required four meetings per year between labor and management, at which five persons from each side should be in attendance. This is rather like the social dialog process in Vietnam.
These changes gave the union a substantial legitimate presence in the workplace and significant responsibilities for representing all the workers, whether they choose to join the union or not.
Changes in the relationship between the employer and individual workers
The most important change that affected workers individually was that the employer would now respect seniority. Working on holidays, assignment to overtime, asking for paid time off, promotions, opportunities for training and assignments to premium-pay work like the suicide hotline, would all be done be seniority or, if the work is not desirable, by reverse seniority.
Discipline is another important change. In the past, with no contract, the employer could fire, suspend, re-schedule or re-assign a worker without giving any explanation. The employer could just say, “You’re fired,” and that was that. Under the new Heartland contract, discipline is progressive. That means that punishments progress from mild to severe: an oral reprimand, a written reprimand, suspension, and then discharge. Discipline is supposed to be corrective, not punishment. It is supposed to teach, not intimidate.
This shifts the balance of power between management and worker toward the center and reduces the role of fear and intimidation.
You can see that the first Director at Heartland thought that she could change anything she wanted about the way the enterprise was managed, without ever asking the workers if they agreed.
Discipline and work assignments can also be challenged – “grieved” – with the help of the union steward. The contract also says that discipline must be carried out “in a manner that will not embarrass the employee.” This is like what’s called a “respect and dignity” clause in other contracts: an agreement that the workers will be treated with respect and dignity.
The workers got a significant raise in pay and the part-timers retained their health insurance coverage. An increase in pay, however, although it looks important, is not as important in the long run as seniority and a grievance procedure.
Was it worth it?
This was a huge, long-term struggle, but it is not unusual in US labor history. A small group of workers self-organize in order to confront a bad boss. They call in a national union that helps them. They vote, get a union, try to bargain, and then have to develop a strategy that includes publicity, getting legislators to support them, and bringing the community together in order to put pressure on the employer to get them to sign a contract and end the labor dispute. It’s a painful and emotional experience.
Many people who engage in the struggle itself do not benefit from what is won. They get other jobs, get burnt out, move away. They may ask themselves if it was worth it, if they didn’t benefit from it themselves. If they are among those who lose their jobs during the organizing drive, they may feel bitter about it.
But many others answer yes, it’s worth it. It’s part of the big fight for a better society for working class people, even if it never pays off for someone personally. To know that these workers who tried so hard finally have the security and peace of mind that comes from working under a union contract makes it worth the fight for many workers who become activists.
And besides, if you happen to get a job where there is a union, where the boss can’t fire you for no reason and where you can solve problems by bringing them to the steward, then you are very lucky. But someone else had to do the hard, dangerous work of organizing the union that protects you now.