by Fernando Gapasin
At a time when unions need to be developing new leaders, educating, and building membership ownership in their unions, union members in OSEA/AFT 6732, Chapter 124, Independence, OR are yelling, “This union can’t protect me and the leaders are trying to prevent me from voting, why the hell should I be in this union? When Janus passes I’m quitting and asking all members to quit too!” Lots of smart people have written about why unions matter (e.g., Michael Yates), but only when workers claim ownership of their unions and realize their own power through collective action will unions rise again.
For 30-years, my department, transportation has been left out of our Chapter’s union leadership. The struggle for democracy in Chapter 124 has been a short one. We live in rural Oregon and the politics of the area are conservative. While OSEA, the Association, not a union, was started in 1935, Chapter 124 did not affiliate until 1984. It has never been an active Chapter. The weakness of their contract reflects the conservative culture of the Chapter. They have no right to grieve discrimination, performance evaluations and suspensions and dismissals cannot be arbitrated and the Superintendent’s decision is final. The Public Employment Collective Bargaining Act (PECBA) allows gross violations of “just cause” to heard as an unfair labor practice by the Employee Relations Board, but this union negotiated away that right years ago. So, as my supervisor informed me, “Your union is a joke and I can do anything I want under your contract.” By all accounts 24 transportation workers have been fired over the past 8-years and as several drivers said, “If we had arbitration some of them would not have been fired.”
Last year, a group of drivers filed a grievance concerning bidding rights and procedures. It had been over a year since a union representative visited transportation. After discussing the grievance with us and management our President left promising to keep us in the loop. Five months later we hear about the union voting on a “memorandum of understanding” resolving our grievance. Not only did the MOU not resolve our grievance in any way, but disparaging remarks about our department were made in the MOU. We attended the next union meeting in mass and objected to the MOU and demanded that I become their union department representative. Because our Chapter Constitution, at that time, required the Executive Board to carry-out the vote of members at a union meeting we successfully defeated the MOU and installed me as the union representative for our department. Since, our Constitution used Robert’s Rules of Order we used its procedures to get our voice and our votes heard at this meeting.
At the next monthly meeting our Chapter leaders tried to eliminate Robert’s as the procedural guide. Our leaders were ruled out of order by the members. During the next Chapter meeting the annual election of officers was held. With little preparation transportation decided to run one person for an officer position and three of us ran for Conference (Convention) delegates. First, voting was limited to 20 minutes during a union meeting. Because of work this eliminated the majority of people in transportation. A little over 10% of the total membership voted. Second, the Chapter Constitution provided for only 7-days’ notice of election and the LMRDA (Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act) requires a 15-day notice. Third, the President permitted her allies to campaign against transportation candidates at the polls during voting, this violated the LMRDA.
We followed the appeal processes prescribed by our State Constitution and requested that the election be set aside. Our Chapter leaders heard our first appeal and denied the appeal claiming that none of incidents had occurred. We then appealed to State OSEA. A hearing officer from another AFT affiliate was selected. Evidence was presented and the hearing officer ruled that our Chapter President had violated the LMRDA by allowing electioneering during the vote. Second, the Chapter 124 Constitution had to be amended to be consistent with the law and the OSEA Constitution. Third, voting opportunities had to be expanded and the leaders of Chapter 124 had to be retrained. Consequently, the petitioners decided not to appeal to the Secretary of Labor. We thought that this offered a perfect opportunity to make our Chapter more accessible and democratic for our members.
We requested broader member participation in rewriting the Constitution instead the President appointed herself, the other three board members, one strong supporter and one person from transportation to the Constitution Revision Committee. Our leaders attempted to rewrite our Constitution in secret, but, our person on the committee informed us about the proposed changes. First, they wanted to raise the dues without explaining why. Second, they eliminated all reference to the Executive Board being accountable to the members. All decision making was exclusively reserved for the EB except, contract ratification, amending the Constitution, electing and recalling officers. No EB reports, no written financial statements, no newsletter. Third they made membership meetings quarterly instead of monthly, thus eliminating opportunities for members to meet or influence decision making. They proposed criteria for office and for Conference delegates that practically made only themselves eligible. In Wirtz vs. HERE Local 6, 389 F 2nd 717 (1968) the Federal Court struck down similar provisions.
We formed “Members 4 Inclusion and Transparency (M4IT),” and drafted our own Constitutional revisions. Citing the crisis caused by Janus and the other “right to work” efforts in Oregon we created an expanded Executive Committee, qualifications for election were reduced to only being a member, monthly union meetings, required member training, required monthly newsletter, EB accountability, elected negotiation committees, elected stewards with a stewards council chaired by the “Internal Vice-President who is also responsible for training. So far 16% of the membership has signed on to our revisions.
Citing the Wirtz decision we convinced State OSEA to intervene and urge our leaders to revise their revisions. We want to stall the battle over the Constitution until we can negotiate our new contract. By our persistent pressure our negotiation committee has adopted a public theme of Parity (Teachers have arbitration so should classified), joint Teacher and Classified proposals, Teacher endorsement of our proposals and all negotiation sessions will be open and scheduled so members can attend. Officer elections will be held in April.
State OSEA is urging M4IT to unite with our leaders and to “ stop being divisive.” We believe a strong contract driven by democratically empowered members creates real solidarity and will do more to save us from “right to work” than a union that protects its leaders by stifling rank and file initiative and action.
Fernando Gapasin was a field representative for the Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA) for 14-years and a rank and file member of OSEA Chapter 124/AFT Local 6732 for 3-years, and is co-author of Solidarity Divided (with Bill Fletcher, Jr.). Gapasin contacted AUD for assistance, as his member caucus seeks to keep his local democratic in the face of an effort by the leadership to restrict member participation and engagement. Here is his story.