N.H. Union Members Invoke Spirit of MLK While Advocating for Employee Contract 50 Years After Assassination

  • Meriden Congregational Church Co-Pastor John Gregory-Davis delivers a letter signed by demonstrators supporting a new contract for state employees to the office of Governor Chris Sununu at the New Hampshire Statehouse in Concord, N.H., Wednesday, April 4, 2018. The governor's receptionist, who declined to identify herself, denied Gregory-Davis's request to deliver the letter in person. Rep. Lee Oxenham, D-Plainfield, is at left.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth Professor of History Annelise Orleck raises her fist while singing "Solidarity Forever" with others gathered at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Concord, N.H., Wednesday, April 4, 2018, to remember Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his assassination and show support for New Hampshire state employees who are seeking a fair contract with the state. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rev. Eric Jackson, left, of the Brookside Congregational Church in Manchester, N.H., and Richard Gulla, right, president of SEIU Local 1984, lead a march from St. Paul's Episcopal Church to the Legislative Office Building in Concord, N.H., Wednesday, April 4, 2018. State employees have worked 278 days without a contract. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, April 05, 2018

Concord — Upper Valley activists on Wednesday joined union advocates from around New Hampshire in the state capital to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. and, on the 50th anniversary of his assassination during a labor rights push in Tennessee, to urge Gov. Chris Sununu to reach a contract deal with state employees.

April 4 marked the 278th day that more than 10,000 New Hampshire public employees have been without a contract, the advocates said — a state of uncertainty that they attributed to the Republican governor and likened to the Tennessee workers’ struggle half a century ago.

“Today we draw on the great perseverance of those sanitation workers who never gave up and eventually won,” Richard Gulla, president of SEA/SEIU Local 1984, said at a rally in the Legislative Office Building, across the street from the New Hampshire Statehouse.

Gulla said thousands of transportation workers, state troopers and social services providers — not all of whom are represented by his union — had been left without employment agreements because the governor’s negotiators declined to accept cost-of-living wage increases and pay raises for longtime employees.

“Let (Sununu) know we will not be forgotten and we will not be ignored,” Gulla said.

Many of the advocates, including Rev. John Gregory-Davis of Meriden Congregational Church, linked the current-day labor conflict to King, arguing that the civil rights leader’s fight against racism had overshadowed in the public consciousness his interest in economic inequality.

“Our nation has for too long misunderstood Dr. King,” Gregory-Davis told the crowd of about 60 people. “It wasn’t only about ending racism, but also about addressing the economic disparities at the heart of our nation.”

King was shot to death on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., where he was advocating on behalf of public sanitation workers. In his latter years, he came to believe that fair labor and racial equality were interrelated issues that had to be addressed together, the New Hampshire advocates said.

Back then, the sanitation employees worked under “inhuman” conditions, fellow Meriden minister Gail Kinney said during a pre-rally meeting at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, around the corner. Black workers, in particular, were unable to wash up before coming home, and sometimes stripped “nearly naked” before stepping through their doors so as to avoid bringing the stench of garbage into their homes.

“ ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ ” Kinney said on Wednesday morning, quoting King. “The same applies to our New Hampshire public sector workers.”

Annelise Orleck, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, spoke at the church meeting and the rally about past movements, the present “fast-food” labor economy and the connections between them.

Much of her talk was drawn from her new book, “We Are All Fast-Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages, a synopsis of the international backsliding in labor rights that has taken place in the past decades — and the interconnected fights across many countries to restore what workers have lost.

Today, Orleck said at the rally, public unions form the “backbone” of New Hampshire’s labor movement. She worried aloud that such a lengthy delay in reaching a deal could indicate ulterior motives.

“It is a concerted attempt to break the power of public sector unions,” she told the crowd in the Legislative Office Building.

After the news conference, a smaller group walked over to the Statehouse to hand-deliver a letter to Sununu demanding a contract.

“We’re really disappointed,” Gregory-Davis told an aide who took the message. “This has gone on so long. It’s really unconscionable.”

Sununu’s spokesman, Benjamin Vihstadt, forwarded a request for comment to the state government’s manager of employee relations, who has helped conduct talks.

“The State’s bargaining team continues to negotiate in good faith as we follow the process laid out by law,” the manager, Matthew Newland, said in an email. “While we may not agree on the details and we may not agree on the flexibility that the State has to provide for and meet every demand made by the unions, we continue to actively engage in the bargaining process.”

Newland said state officials and employees were waiting on fact-finding reports to arrive this month or next, at which point each side will have to decide whether to accept the fact-finder’s recommendations.

State legislators who supported the marchers argued that the process had gone on long enough, however.

“It’s not good faith negotiation to not put a proposal on the table in 278 days,” said state Rep. Lee Oxenham, D-Plainfield, who accompanied the labor marchers and floated the idea of introducing a House resolution urging a deal. “These people are doing hard, good work for us, and we’re not giving them the respect they deserve.”

But Newland said the negotiations, including the matter of what state officials may or may not have proposed to employees, had been more complex than Oxenham described.

“All sides presented many proposals, and we (the Parties) agreed to some but not all,” he said. “And all sides also rejected some of each other’s proposals. That is the normal give and take of the bargaining process.”

Stan Freeda, a state employee from Farmington who attended the rally, said that despite the uncertainty about contracts, workers have continued to do their duty to the public.

“State employees just always do the work, no matter what,” said Freeda, who serves as educational technology director at the New Hampshire Department of Education.

Though he may be frustrated with the administration, Freeda said, he doesn’t take it out on the members of the public who call him for assistance every day. “They’re educators who need my help — and I’ll continue to help them.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.