New York Times

For Democracy in Unions, Pair Defies Labor Leaders

By Steven Greenhouse
June 20, 1999

SEATTLE -- In what could be a showdown between union leaders and rank-and-file members here, Jamie Newman insists that a referendum she and another bus driver hope to have placed on the state ballot this November -- a measure that would instill more democracy in unions -- is "as American as apple pie."

Using a Web site and a network of friends to spread the word and collect signatures, the two bus drivers are marshaling their forces for what they consider nothing less than a crusade, saying that their proposal would get workers more involved in their unions and ultimately strengthen the labor movement. "What we're doing is lighting a fire," said Ms. Newman, a piano tuner who became a bus driver nine years ago. "Many people just don't get involved in union matters because there's so little democracy." But many union leaders view the proposal as a poison pill, convinced that it will fuel factionalism more than democracy and will weaken unions' ability to stand up to management. The proposal, Initiative 702, has alarmed labor leaders not just in Washington State, but across the nation because they fear it could spread to other states and even be pushed in Congress.

For unions and union locals based in Washington state, the proposal would guarantee members the right to vote on contracts and pick their officers through direct elections -- rights many union members do not enjoy. The proposal would also require government-employee unions to do something that Federal law requires of private-sector unions: make their financial reports available to members. There is one especially contentious provision that many union leaders say would make factionalism run rampant: any union grouping that can demonstrate the backing of 5 percent of members could at its own expense and whenever it wants send out a mailing to all members.

Ms. Newman and her co-sponsor, Johnny Jackson, an equally intense, equally brash bus driver, were surprised by organized labor's vehement reaction to their proposal. The state AFL-CIO issued a leaflet calling it "unnecessary, dangerous and illegal." The bus drivers, members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, insist that many union leaders oppose the referendum because increased democracy could loosen their grip on power and end their near-monopoly over information sent to members. "This doesn't require anything that any good unions wouldn't be doing anyway," Jackson said. "I don't buy that this is destroying unions. This is going to build unions. What's destroying unions is totalitarian leadership." Ms. Newman and Jackson came up with the proposal after growing angry at their union's president, who reached an agreement that they thought was too sympathetic to their employer, King County's Transit Authority.

The two drivers say they have a simple vision: many unions have become too bureaucratic and unresponsive, and that has helped cause labor's membership and influence to shrink. Give union members more rights, they say, and workers will invigorate their unions.

Opponents of Initiative 702 say there is a good chance that Ms. Newman and Jackson will not obtain the 200,000 signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot. Confident that the proposal will win if it gets on the ballot, the two say that if they do not collect enough signatures this year, they will try again. The pair also counts on some support in Congress. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, one of Congress' fiercest critics of labor, told them that he might introduce a bill containing their proposal.

Labor leaders have seized on these Republican overtures as evidence that the referendum will undermine the labor movement. Why else, they ask, would labor's foes in Congress embrace it.

Washington state AFL-CIO president Rick Bender said the drivers were misguided in wanting the public to vote on regulations affecting unions. "If you have problems with your local union or parent union, then convince a majority of the rank and file to change it," he said. "We don't want to see this go to all the voters, many of whom know little about how unions function and many of whom would like to damage unions."

Reserving his harshest words for the rule that would allow mailings whenever dissident groups wanted, Bender said, "It would cause a lot of disruption and make it difficult for local unions to function." Some union officials maintain that measures like Initiative 702 can bring too much democracy into a union, similar to the way the government of Italy had so many parties and factions that it could not rule effectively.

Ms. Newman and Jackson, however, insist that many union leaders dislike democracy and care little about union members' rights because they fear that an empowered membership would drive them from office. "I was involved in the civil rights movement, and basically my upbringing is one about getting rights," said Jackson, who grew up in Florida and Georgia. "There is very little difference between workers rights and civil rights."

Jackson said he would accept support for Initiative 702, even from anti-union Republicans, because he was confident his proposal would strengthen, not sabotage, the labor movement. "When people say this is anti-union, my comeback is, which part is anti-union?" he said. "If bringing democracy into unions is anti-union, something is wrong."

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