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Labor unions push for referendum vote

State labor department bills die early in legislative session

JACKSON — Even though legislation for a proposed state department of labor died in committee on Jan. 30, labor union supporters have decided to bypass the legislative process and take the issue to the ballot box.

“Some way or another, the membership is bound and determined to get a department of labor in this state, and they would use the initiative referendum since the legislative process did not work,” said Neal Fowler, president of the 70,000-member Mississippi chapter of the AFL-CIO.

Even though a timeline has not yet been set, labor union representatives are making plans to get the 91,673 certified signatures needed on an initiative petition before the issue can go to Mississippi voters. Of those, at least 18,355 certified signatures are needed from each of the five congressional districts.

“The (certified signatures) have to be equally dispersed in every congressional district, and I guarantee that they don’t have that,” said MEC president Blake Wilson.

But Fowler disagreed.

“We will win in the end. We worked to elect (legislators), but they wouldn’t handle it. We’ll figure out another way,” he said.

According to a Mississippi Manufacturers Association newsletter, Rep. Jim Evans (D-Jackson), who authored one of the four bills introducing legislation to create a state department of labor — all four bills died in committee on Jan. 30, the deadline for legislative action — said the initiative would repeal the Right to Work statute, too.

“People want the Right to Work laws … repealed, too,” Evans said.

John Baas, director of industrial relations for MMA, said the only Mississippians who would benefit from this action would be “card-carrying union folks. Every time they attend one of these rallies, or testify before the House or Senate labor committees, they always say there’s nothing in it for the union, and that they’re only doing it for the poor, working people in the state. But it’s always the unions that are saying that!”

According to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Inc., Mississippi enacted the Right to Work statute in February 1954, and a constitutional provision was added in June 1960. The Right to Work law provides employees that work at a union company the option to join a union. If the law is repealed, employees that work for a union company are required to either join or pay dues to the union as a condition of employment.

Right to Work is separate from “closed shop,” which restricts an employer from hiring only members of the union — a party to the collective bargaining agreement. The closed shop is illegal and unenforceable in all states.

“Repealing the Right to Work law is a membership recruitment effort for the unions,” Wilson said. “It would take away an individual’s right to choose. It would be like MEC being able to make people join our organization.”

All four bills died in committee on Jan. 30, the deadline for legislative action.

“We are fortunate in Mississippi that our legislative leaders understand that the way to stimulate more jobs is not by creating more regulation, cost and overhead,” said Wilson. “I don’t happen to believe that the referendum approach is the best way. I’ve always believed in a Jeffersonian democracy, where we elect our people to vote the will of the people, and I think the will of the people is very clear. Union membership in Mississippi is very, very low because of the will of the people.”

Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, who has publicly supported the new state department of labor, said he would like to see it established through the legislative process.

“His position has not changed,” said Lisa Mader, spokesperson for the governor’s office.

Mary Ann Graczyk, president of the Mississippi American Federation of Teachers, Paraprofessionals and School-Related Personnel of the AFL-CIO, and chairperson of Citizens United for a Department of Labor in the State of Mississippi, who will spearhead the referendum issue, said the creation of a state labor department would decrease bureaucracy, improve the quality of the workforce, replace confrontation with arbitration and attract new businesses and higher paying jobs to the state, which would reduce the tax burden on Mississippians.

In other southern states, Alabama has a labor department, an economic and community affairs department and an industrial relations department. Arkansas established an employment security department and a labor department. Kentucky has a Cabinet for Workforce Development. Tennessee’s is called the Department of Employment Security. North Carolina has an employment security commission, department of commerce employment and training division and department of labor. South Carolina has an employment security commission and department of licensing, inspections and regulations. Georgia and Louisiana are the only two southern states that have sole labor departments.

Opponents point out to evidence that, partly as a result, union gains are on the rise. Only 4.2% of North Carolina workers and 4.5% of South Carolinians are represented by labor unions, ranking them 49th and 50th for union membership. In 1998, South Carolina added 17,000 union members, a boost that attributed to a 27.2% gain that year, giving the state the highest percentage gain in the nation, according to Donna Dewitt, president of the S.C. AFL-CIO.

“I guess the people supporting the labor department want us to turn back the clock. That’s not a very progressive approach. Fortunately, it’s a pretty small group that’s beating a dead horse,” Wilson said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.


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