EMBEDDED IN THE PURPLE ARMY
By Lou Grieco
Dayton Newspaper Guild
TNG-CWA Local 34157
The Purple Army marched through Washington DC on March 9 and 10, visiting Congressional Offices as Labor’s allies on Capitol Hill introduced the Employee Free Choice Act in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
I was there, a CWA representative among 330 rank and file union members. There were other CWA members, though I was the only one from the Newspaper Guild. There were members from Unite Here, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers. But the majority were members of our hosts, the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU, one of the largest unions in the country, represents all types of workers: janitors, health care workers, security guards, nurses, hotel workers.
They’re an impressive bunch: a diverse group of men and women, white, black and Latino, immigrants and U.S. born, young and not so young. And they wear purple. This is not old labor. This is America.
We were in Washington to tell our stories. Mine is simple: we’re still fighting for our first contract after 22 years of unfair labor practices, lawsuits, delay tactics and bad faith bargaining by our employer. There are other stories that are even worse. At least our company never fired anyone for wanting to start a union.
On Monday, March 9, we went through Lobby Day Message Training. In the afternoon, we divided into six groups that went to six trade industry associations that are lobbying against Free Choice. We marched and picketed in front of the associations’ headquarters and asked to speak with a representative. All six had rejected previous requests for a meeting.
I don’t remember which association I went to. But I did get to deliver one of the letters to the officers. We had to talk our way past security, but the officers would not come down to see us.
Then the six teams marched through downtown Washington, meeting up in front of the White House for a rally. The U.S. Chamber is directly across the street, so we made a lot of noise for Free Choice, including remarks from SEIU President Andy Stern.
Tuesday, March 10, was Lobby Day. I started at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, watching a hearing on Free Choice. Then we started lobbying. Team Ohio was comprised of six, including two SEIU staffers, plus Alan Rogue, a CWA member from Youngstown and two SEIU affiliates who are trying to start unions in Cincinnati.
We visited Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office, where we spoke to a staffer. Brown is a strong labor supporter and co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act. Next, we had lunch, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chaired the hearing that morning, joined us. He announced that the legislation had been introduced in both the Senate and the House and gave us a good pep talk.
After lunch, we decided to drop in on Ohio Sen. George Voinovich. SEIU was not able to get a commitment from Voinovich, but we tried to meet with him anyway. At his office, we were told that no one was available, but we were able to leave information about Free Choice with his receptionist. (Back at home in Dayton, at least 10 guild members called Voinovich’s office that day to say he should have met with us, and that he should support Free Choice).
I wanted to see US Rep. Mike Turner, a Republican and former Dayton mayor, though he was not on our list of appointments. Turner was not there, but his Chief of Staff, Stacy Palmer-Barton, graciously met with us. She was very polite and asked good questions about the Employee Free Choice Act. She said that Turner comes from a union family, and that he likes to think about things, then go his own way, and that she was sure he would consider our views. While we did not walk away with a commitment to support Free Choice, it was an encouraging visit.
Next was U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus, from Cincinnati. Driehaus, a co-sponsor of the bill, took time to meet with us and listen to our stories. He told us he is under heavy pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups. He said labor supporters have to get the message out, to call in to talk radio shows, to write letters to the editor.
Then we visited the offices of U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, whose district runs across the southeastern border of Ohio. (It was Ted Strickland’s district). Wilson is a co-sponsor of the bill. We met with his Legislative Assistant, Melissa Benish, who said Wilson faces heavy pressure from business lobbyists over his support of the bill. When we arrived, she was preparing his responses to those lobbyists’ claims about Free Choice, and we were delighted for the opportunity to answer her questions and set the record straight.
We also dropped by on U.S. Rep. Steven LaTourette, a Republican from northeast Ohio who has supported Free Choice in the past, but has not committed this time. No one was available to speak to us, but the receptionist took our information.
At the de-briefing session that night, CWA President Larry Cohen spoke about our stories, including my local’s story. He pointed out that the Dayton Newspaper Guild has never stopped fighting, and is, in fact, stronger than ever before. (I later thanked him for never giving up on us. He responded “we never will.”)
Cohen pointed out that the Free Choice battle is very winnable, but is also very tough. He compared it to football, and said we’re one foot from the end zone, but that’s going to be the toughest foot to get.
When I left Washington, my feet were tired but my spirit was soaring. This is a time of opportunity, but our work is cut out for us. The legislators need to hear from the people, the workers, who keep this country going. The business lobby is scaring labor’s friends and comforting our enemies. It’s time for us to write letters, make phone calls. Do what it takes. Every local needs to play a part.
The Purple Army has helped us get off to a great start. I’m grateful to the CWA for sending me, and I’m grateful to the SEIU for all their hard work putting this complex event. I’d be honored to work with my SEIU sisters and brothers anytime.
I might even wear purple.