Arbitration proposal divides former allies

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010

By the time Valerie Ervin arrived in Indianola, Miss., in the 1980s, cotton picking had given way to the waterlogged and bloody work of turning catfish into dinner.

"You can't have a machine gut a catfish. Cutting it, gutting it, filleting it - that's all hand work," said Ervin, remembering her time as an organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Ervin, elected last week as president of the Montgomery County Council, was dispatched from Washington to the Delta as backup for striking workers in a newly formed local. She organized food banks and utility payments and tried to lift the spirits of a group of African American women whose deplorable working conditions reminded her of her father's stories about growing up in the Jim Crow South.

"They made them stand in water for hours at a time, no bathroom breaks, cuts on their hands, missing fingers. They were the poorest people I had ever seen," Ervin said.

She helped the women hold out for a better contract.

It marked the beginning of a years-long trek across the country during which Ervin unionized aluminum smelter workers in Oregon and nurses in Rhode Island - and set the political foundations for her life in public office.

So it was more than a bit jarring last week when one of Ervin's former union brothers, joined by an official from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, welcomed Ervin to her new job as council president with a withering rebuke.

Ervin had stoked their ire with a proposal, set for a vote Tuesday, to tighten what she calls "loopholes" in the county's collective bargaining law.

"After 30 years of persistent attacks on the labor movement, the right wing in America has hammered down private-sector union representation to some7 percent of the workforce," testified Gino Renne, the leader of Montgomery's government employees union, itself part of the United Food and Commercial Workers. "Now, they are turning on public workers, where they recognize they can score points in the media by pandering to fear and resentment.

"Teachers, bus drivers, librarians, police officers, firefighters - we have all become targets of opportunity," he said. "Those attacks are unconscionable, but even worse, it's appalling when those same sentiments are echoed by some of our so-called friends who call themselves progressive Democrats."

Elbridge G. James, a top Maryland NAACP official, sat at a long table in the council chambers last week and wondered rhetorically about his own decision to move from Pennsylvania to Montgomery County.

"I didn't move to Montgomery, Alabama. I didn't move to Montgomery, Virginia, or Georgia, where they take workers' rights lightly," James said.

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