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UMW Living Wage considers union options from UE 160

On Friday, December 3, Virginia Public Service Workers Union (UE Local 160) members and organizers spoke with twelve workers, eight students, and a handful of faculty members of the University of Mary Washington Living Wage Coalition. They met at the university's physical plant in Fredericksburg, VA to explore the question, “Can state workers unionize?? The answer was a resounding “Yes you can!?
Friday, December 3. 2004.

Fredericksburg, VA

Tammy Kincaid, a registered nurse of 27 years and a state employee, is a member of the Virginia Public Service Workers union. The state pays her dues for her monthly, deducting that amount from her paychecks. She says she’s a member not so much for more money, but for the opportunity to fight for a less dictatorial and condescending workplace. She’d like not to have to ask permission from her state supervisors to get her second job to make ends meet.

Today Tammy Kincaid and several union organizers spoke with twelve workers, eight students, and a handful of faculty members of the University of Mary Washington Living Wage Coalition. They met to explore the question, “Can state workers unionize?? The answer was a resounding “Yes you can!?

“Do you as state employees have the right to organize?? asked George Waksmunski, a field organizer with the United Electrical Workers, which has been organizing state workers in Virginia since 2001. “Absolutely,? he said, “we’re doing it all over the state, all the time." Referring to Virginia’s especially stringent laws regulating unions, Waksmunski added, “the ‘Right to Work (for less)’ law itself says you can.? Virginia’s so-called “Right to Work? law cannot supercede federal law, which guarantees the right to organize. Approximately 1000 Virginia state workers are now part of the union Waksmunski represents.

As Allen Laymen pointed out, “every Virginian has the right to join a union.? Laymen is a longtime state employee and currently President of The Virginia Public Service Workers Union, a local of the United Electrical Workers. State workers at the University of Virginia have also unionized, joining the Communication Workers of America in 2001. Laymen, thinking-over his 10 years of organizing, said he “can’t think of anyone who has been fired for joining a union.? But he says, “I can tell you about people who got fired on bad grounds and got their jobs back because we were organized.? Waksmunski added that “anyone tells you you don’t have the right to form a union, you say... show me the law... they won’t be able to do it.?

As workers at the meeting learned what a union could do for them, the Virginia Public Service Workers representatives addressed the fears and questions of UMW workers. Of particular interest to Living Wage members was the effect that unionizing had on workers at the College of William and Mary, who joined the union in 2001-2002.

Henry Ford, a one-time long-time corrections officer, now an organizer for the union, said that people often ask "what's the union gonna do for me?" But "you are the union," he insisted. And in his years of experience, he told the room, those state law enforcement workers who had the most active union, won the best pay and benefits. "Organizing is about networking... take this union personally and get together."

Currently, all over the state, among both public and private employees, there is a push for labor rights. This push is stronger than it has been for decades. The Virginia Public Service Workers Union is an attempt at a statewide labor organization. This organization is coming together through grassroots movements like UMW’s Living Wage Coalition. Tammy Kincaid addressed this idea, declaring, “We need to unite! We need to have one common voice! We need to have one solid voice!? She advocated active involvement in union organizing. She said that rank and file workers needed to do more than just pay dues to a union. They need to be active in making the demands, and in changing Virginia’s anti-union legislation.

The meeting was organized by the UMW Living Wage Coalition, composed of workers, students, and faculty members. This coalition, formed approximately one year ago, was organized to address the growing economic inequalities at the University and the increasing cost of living in Fredericksburg. The primary projects of the campaign have been research and awareness projects, such as organizing protests, getting news stories in local media, conducting surveys among workers, and calculating a living wage.

Despite the coalition’s efforts, administrators have repeatedly refused to meet with their representatives. While refusing meet the coalition, the administration has attempted to gain public approval by announcing a 4.5% raise for all employees. The much touted 4.5% raise, however, was coupled with a low-profile announcement that they would take away holiday gift cards from low-income employees. While most (3% out of the 4.5%) of this raise came from the state, the 1.5% given by UMW is roughly $250 annually. This is almost the exact same amount as the $225 holiday bonuses that have been canceled. In effect what the UMW administration is giving the classified employees is NOTHING.

To “unmask? this indignity, the Living Wage Coalition held a Halloween demonstration on October 29, drawing over 100 students, faculty and workers. Following up on the momentum from the demonstration, the Living Wage Coalition again requested a meeting with the Executive Vice President, Rick Hurley, and again were denied representation at the meeting. For this and other reasons, the Living Wage Campaign has turned to the idea of unionizing the work force as a way of strengthening organizing potential of the campaign.

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