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Local members show support for pro-union bill

by Canda Harbaugh & Western News
| April 30, 2009 12:00 AM

A union with nearly 100 local members hosted events in Libby last week to support health-care reform and a federal pro-union bill.

Local and regional organizers of Service Employees International Union were on hand Thursday promoting more accessible health care and the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that proponents say will make it less challenging for a workforce to unionize.

“They seem like really separate issues, but they both work to help the middle class,” SEIU Libby organizer Kim Pappas said. “One by allowing middle class families to have access to health care that they may not be able to afford or that their employer might not provide. The other helps by guaranteeing more stable jobs.”

In-home caregivers from A Full Life Agency, which make up the local SEIU constituent, filtered in and out of the SEIU-rented hall Thursday afternoon. Members educated themselves about the related legislation and wrote personal letters to the congressional delegation about their feelings on health care and the proposed legislation.

Laura Smart, a Libby in-home caregiver and SEIU member, recently became involved in the union’s lobbying efforts. She spoke to state legislators in Helena in February, lobbied in Washington D.C. for five days in March and plans on returning to Washington next month. 

“I believe everybody should be able to get in a union if the majority of the employees want it,” Smart said. “It helps us working people.”

Smart recalls how simple the process of unionizing A Full Life Agency was, but has heard about the obstacles that others have faced in attempting for years to unionize. She believes that the Employee Free Choice Act will help them.

Currently, after a majority of the workforce agrees to unionize an employer can demand a secret ballot election, which occurs after a three-month period. The bill will allow a workforce to forego the three-month period and formal election – unionizing after a majority of workers give their signature to the union.

“Statistically,” Pappas said, “40 percent of employees that try to unionize get fired between when they first ask for their election and before the election happens.”

The proposed legislation calls for stricter penalties for employers who fire or intimidate their employees for organizing a union, and puts measures in place to allow workers to gain their first contract within a reasonable timeframe.

SEIU planned later meetings to get more union members to write letters to Montana’s congressmen.