Gas: $3.44. Rent: $900. Unionization: priceless.

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SUSPENSE … FRUSTRATION … exhilaration … the successful union drive at Bellevue Community College had them all. As a member of Radical Women, I’ve participated as a community activist in many labor-community efforts. This time, I was thrilled to be part of an endeavor at my own workplace.

When I applied for my job in June 2005, the staff had been in the Washington Public Employees Association since January 2004. But by the time I was hired in late 2005, the union had lost a decertification election. This campaign was led by a few hostile individuals and evidently not countered effectively enough by the union.

WPEA continued to advocate for workers — employees in crisis turned to them. Last year staff who wanted union representation invited WPEA back for an organizing drive. Initially, the campaign was conducted mostly one-on-one, encouraging people to sign union cards, distributing fact sheets and mailing flyers. A WPEA representative came to campus once a week and late in the campaign held a lunchtime informational session.

But the union’s strategy of private discussions did not provide a way to publicly debate and clarify issues. A co-worker and I organized a roundtable discussion, “Let’s Talk Union,” so folks could raise concerns. Handing out flyers helped build open pro-union sentiment. People I didn’t know well started calling to ask for information and share their experiences.

We’re a pretty diverse crew — different ages, ethnicities, genders, religions (including us atheists), sexualities, physical abilities, nationalities, life experiences and political orientations. We’re brought together as workingclass people, because we work for a living at the same place. We all want to have a say in our working conditions, contribute our talents, be listened to and treated with respect, get a decent wage, and have protection from capricious managers. Many of us knew that a union can be a potent means to improve our situation and make the college run better.

THEN WE GOT CAUGHT in a crossfire. Days before the ballots were mailed, the Washington Federation of State Employees jumped into the election, creating three choices on the ballot: WPEA, WFSE or no representation. WFSE was brought in by someone who was part of the earlier decertification campaign against WPEA (and who also happens to be an advisor for the rightwing Campus Crusade for Christ).

As state workers, our contract would be similar with either union. So WFSE’s sudden appearance disoriented people. And it sent out statements dissing WPEA that fueled anti-union backlash. One employee said it was like two used car salesmen competing to sell him the same car — one had to be lying, so why trust either?

Why would WFSE play such a role? It is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, while WPEA belongs to the Change to Win coalition of unions that left the AFL-CIO in 2005. So our college became part of a turf war between the two labor federations over potential dues-paying members!

BUT SOLIDARITY PREVAILED for rank-and-file members of WFSE 304 (which already represents some staff at BCC). They responded completely differently from their state leadership. The local invited me to speak at their meeting about how WFSE’s tactics were endangering either union getting a majority. The members voted unanimously to send a letter encouraging BCC staff to vote union, regardless of which one we choose. But state WFSE bureaucrats sabotaged the letter at the last minute by changing the wording to subvert its original intent, forcing the signers to withdraw it. Nonetheless, some of us tried to spread the word about Local 304’s union solidarity. This kind of action is the hope and future of the labor movement.

When the ballots were counted, WPEA won 55 percent of the vote; no representation got 29 percent and WFSE got only 16 percent. We go directly into an existing WPEA community college contract.

I’m thrilled to be a card-carrying member of WPEA! Next up is the task of improving our working conditions and lives. Fighting for the rights of nonclassified, part-time, hourly employees is of critical importance. As workers with no benefits and few job protections, they are the most vulnerable. They have been included in the union for the first time.

How democratic and strong our local becomes will depend on how organized we, the members, are. Union life is a participatory sport. If we develop into a team and turn our concern for each other into action, we will have a powerful collective voice.

So if you’re looking for some drama to spice up your life, don’t turn on the TV. Just tune in to the class struggle!

Anne Slater is National Radical Women Organizer. She can be reached at anne_slater@earthlink.net.

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