Michigan worker pleads intimidation by AFSCME labor union

Hurley Medical Center, Flint MI.
Controversy has unfolded in Michigan at a local public hospital following a dispute between a temporary worker at the local branch of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). While taking college classes, student Kollin VanDenHeuvel took a 90-day temporary job at Hurley Medical Center in Flint MI. VanDenHeuvel saw no advantage in joining AFSCME, which represents medical personnel and other workers at the tax-funded urban hospital.  VanDenHeuvel’s job offered no benefits. Michigan's right-to-work law, which bans mandatory payment of union dues or fees, went into effect in March 2013. Labor unions occupied the grounds of the state capitol in Lansing before the final vote on the issue in the Republican-controlled legislature. Michigan State troopers and other law enforcement were on hand to keep order. There were reports of vandalism and other acts of violence during the pro-labor protests.
 
It was then that AFSCME local 1603 posted VanDenHeuvel’s name, along with three others’, on a bulletin board for public viewing. It was to serve “notice” that he had decided to opt out of union membership as is guaranteed by Michigan state law. Michigan's right-to-work law, signed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, allows workers to decide whether or not to pay dues or fees to a union as a condition of employment. According to a Feb. 20 report by Capital Confidential, a news outlet sponsored by The Mackinac Center - a Michigan thinktank, VanDenHeuvel said "I believe it is posted as intimidation to try to get others to question us members [on] why we chose to opt out."
 
Besides VanDenHeuvel, 27-year AFSCME veteran Sondra Ellison was also on the list. Ellison expressed outrage that her name was posted in a public place.  “It was just there for anyone who just came in." She agreed with VanDenHeuvel that the notice was posted as an act of intimidation and to prevent others from departing the union. Once she complained to hospital administrators, the offending notice was removed. "My employer should be able to protect my privacy at least from the general public," Ellison said.
 
Shannon Leonard, who has been employed by Hurley for the last six years, also opted out. She complained that AFSCME did not come to her assistance when she was removed from jobs and placed on part-time status. "The union has never helped me. [I] always had to fight my way back to full time," Leonard said. "This is the reason behind choice along with the financial need to save the money on dues.” Leonard also expressed outrage at having her name posted in public.
 
 
Hurley Medical Center later released a statement saying, "While Hurley Medical Center is always appropriately concerned with legal rights pertaining to workforce members and issues,  the administration of Hurley Medical Center does not get involved in internal union business," the statement read.”
 
According to Capitol Confidential, labor unions elsewhere have been posting the names of workers choosing to opt out of membership. It reported that the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 324 has referred to 19 Michigan workers as "freeloaders" in its online newsletter. The Michigan Education Association resorted to the same tactic with 16 employees who opted out.
 
AFSCME Local 1603 represents nurse aides, laundry workers, support personnel, ward clerks, dietary staff, and quasi-technical unit personnel, has approximately 780 members.  According to a report in the Flint Journal, a local union leader was irenic in his response to the concerns voiced by VanDenHeuvel and others.  Lawrence Roehrig, international vice president of AFSCME and secretary treasurer of Michigan AFSCME Council 25, denied that the posting of the notice is a policy or strategy on the part of AFSCME but are made at the local union level. Posting the names of workers opting out of membership is up to local unions, said Roehrig, who was quoted by the local daily as saying "As long as you are not harassing ... you can show individuals who have decided not to be members.” He denied that the notice constituted harassment.
 
Contacted by Spero, Matthew Vadum – senior editor of the Washington D.C. thinktank, Capital Research Center – commented on the controversy.  While Vadum was unaware whether the tactic of posting the names of workers opting out of union membership was being used elsewhere, he responded, “That said, the labor movement doesn't rely on gentle persuasion to make its arguments. Organized labor, just like President Obama's community organizer friends, gets in people's faces. They breathe down people's backs and say they're merely using moral suasion to bring people to their senses. But posting a list of those who refuse to join the union is a hardball tactic, whether you choose to call it intimidation, peer pressure, or public shaming.”
 
In an emailed response to Spero News, Manny Lopez of The Mackinac Center, wrote “Workers across Michigan who have been forced to pay union dues or fees to keep their jobs are exercising their rights by opting out of their unions because they don’t see any value in the association. In response, some unions are bullying workers and trying to intimidate people by posting their names on lists in public places or sending those lists to other union members. Clearly this is being done to apply pressure on workers and make the work environment uneasy for people who don’t agree with the union or its politics.”
 
Flint was long a stronghold of labor unions and political activity. It was the famed 1936 Sit-Down Strike in Flint that made the United Auto Workers a fixture in labor circles for decades. With factoring closings, and outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries such as Mexico and to states less friendly to labor organizing such as Tennessee, the UAW has seen a decline in membership and political influence. AFSCME, on the other hand, has seen boom years since it represents government workers.


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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