Organizing in Attorney General’s office garners international attention

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Hundreds of e-mails from overseas are pouring into the Minnesota Attorney General’s office to support a staff organizing effort as an international worker rights website features the campaign.

The London-based site, www.labourstart.org, has made the organizing among 135 attorneys in the Minnesota Attorney General’s office one of its four current action campaigns. Other current campaigns are on behalf of two jailed unionists in Iran, workers locked out at a Canadian refinery and striking nursing home workers in Britain.

As of Monday, “We know of 589 messages sent to the AG’s office,” LabourStart editor Eric Lee told Workday. Of that, “192 came from the USA and nearly 400 from overseas. The biggest numbers are 111 from the United Kingdom, 92 from Canada and 83 from Australia. In addition, 28 messages were sent from Norway in Norwegian.

“For LabourStart, this is one of our smaller campaigns,” Lee noted. “This is not unexpected; at the same time we asked people to support the attorneys in Minnesota, we also reported on trade union activists in Iran receiving 10 lashes each for participating in a May Day demo. So it’s not surprising that the Iranian campaign is several times larger.”

Seeking justice

For more than a year, staff attorneys in the AG’s office have been organizing. While clericals and other staff in the office are represented by the two major state employee unions – AFSCME and MAPE – attorneys fall through a loophole in the state’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act and are not explicitly entitled to organize.

However, nothing prohibits Attorney General Lori Swanson, who was elected in 2006 with labor support, from voluntarily recognizing a union and engaging in the process of “meet and confer.”

Three activists in the office – Susan Damon, Daniel Goldberg and Amy Lawler – sought just that. In May 2007, they presented Swanson with signed union cards from a majority of the attorneys on staff and asked for recognition. She declined.

Since then, Swanson has dismissed employees engaged in the organizing effort without warrant and anti-union literature has popped up in staff mailboxes, the activists said in a letter distributed to their fellow workers and posted on an organizing blog, http://agunion.blogspot.com.

Organizers estimate that one-third of the attorneys on staff have left – on their own terms or Swanson’s – since the organizing drive began.

Swanson rejects claims

In an e-mail to staff Feb. 19, Swanson accused the attorneys of engaging in “a political swipe” and said, “I strongly disagree with many of the accusations in the letter . . . I have always respected and tried to honor the work of the professionals on our team.”

In the e-mail, Swanson said, “I have asked two deputies to meet with the three staff members to flesh out the purpose of the letter and whether the three signatories actually represent the rest of the staff.”

In their letter, the three activists said the organizing effort “is not supported by any outside political interests, nor is it the product of any political vendetta. It is solely staff-driven and any allegations to the contrary are inaccurate.”

Attorneys said they want a union to improve their wages and working conditions and to insulate them from the political pressures inherent in working directly for an elected official.

Minnesota AFL-CIO takes a stand

Last month, the Minnesota AFL-CIO – the state’s largest labor federation – sent a letter to all affiliate unions asking them to stop contributing to Attorney General Lori Swanson until she recognizes the union chosen by attorneys in her office.

The attorneys have expressed interest in joining AFSCME, which represents 19,000 state employees. The union has launched a campaign to put pressure on Swanson. An AFSCME member contacted LabourStart to enlist its support and the union has posted the following on its website, www.afscmemn.org:

“Please contact Attorney General Lori Swanson immediately at 651-296-6196 or attorney.general@state.mn.us. Tell her to stop union busting and recognize the union chosen by her attorneys.

“Also, call the legislators who appropriate funds for the Attorney General’s Office: Senator Don Betzold (651-296-2556) and Representative Phyllis Kahn (651-296-4257). Tell them not to fund the Attorney General’s union-busting activity.”

For more information
To join the LabourStart campaign, go to
http://www.labourstart.org/cgi-bin/solidarityforever/show_campaign.cgi?c=348

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