Facing South

Why won't workers join unions?

Facing South
Facing South
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Here on Labor Day, it's important to consider how labor is faring, especially in the South. The region's reputation as an anti-union stronghold is usually chalked up to a supposed anti-union sentiment on the part of the region's workers.

Over at the AFL-CIO blog, Tula Connell (who has worked as a writer in Texas and Virginia) shows that one of the biggest reasons for the low unionization rates in the South and country is how much the decked is stacked against workers who want to organize:

Those of us in the union movement hear this a lot: "If workers really wanted to join unions, they would."

But at Cingular Wireless operations nationwide, 40,000 workers have joined the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in recent months-18,000 in just the past 12 months-because Cingular respects workers' rights to make up their own minds about unions without threats and intimidation from the employer.

It's not because the technicians and call-center workers at Cingular are any different from most U.S. employees. In fact, some 57 million working people say they would join a union if they had a chance, according to a survey from Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

So why don't more workers join unions?

The answer lies in the nation's outmoded labor laws. U.S. labor laws, passed in the 1930s, sound on the face of it like a democratic process: They are set up so workers at a jobsite vote in secret ballot elections to determine if there's enough support to join a union.

But the reality is more complex. The so-called election process (run by the National Labor Relations Board, NLRB) enables employers to routinely harass, intimidate and coerce workers who try to exercise their freedom to form a union at work. By the time they vote in NLRB elections on whether to join a union, many employees have been forced to sit in captive audience meetings where employers paint a picture of unions so evil, they defy even the worst stereotype. The lengthy NLRB election process gives employers lots of time to harass workers-who receive veiled threats of demotion or lousy job assignments or are badgered by supervisors who even are followed to the restroom by their supervisors. Studies by Cornell University Prof. Kate Bronfenbrenner show 78 percent of private-sector employers require supervisors deliver anti-union messages to workers they oversee.

And in many cases, when workers cast their ballots, they fear if they vote in favor of joining a union, they will lose their jobs. It's illegal, but 25 percent of private-sector employers fire workers who try to form a union. And many more threaten workers with closings, layoffs and outsourcing.

THERE'S MORE ...

In 2001, when Delta flight attendants began to form a union with the Flight Attendants, the company launched a vicious anti-worker campaign that included renting out movie theaters to hold mandatory meetings full of propaganda against the union. Supervisors intimidated attendants and even wrote people up for talking about the union (which is illegal). Delta sent letters and videos from senior management to the homes of flight attendants implicitly threatening job loss if they formed a union. Management even went so far as to tell the more than 3,000 flight attendants laid off after the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy they couldn't vote-when, in fact, they could. Delta flight attendants were not able to overcome these tactics and lost their union election.

So when they were thinking about joining a union, Cingular employees decided to hold what's called a majority verification process, also known as card-check recognition. Workers who want to have a union sign a card authorizing the union to represent them. If 51 percent of the bargainnig unit wants a union, their employer must honor their choice and bargain with their union. No lengthy process during which employers have time to hassle workers. To further ameliorate employer intimidation, Cingular workers also negotiated a code of conduct with management in which Cingular agreed not to interfere in the process.

Under the original set of U.S. labor laws passed as part of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, such employer interference with workers' freedom to form unions was illegal. But corporate muscle helped push revisions to the nation's labor laws through Congress, resulting in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act which legalized much of the harassment employees experience today. In a typical double-speak twist, Big Business at the time argued the NLRA gave unions an unfair advantage in reaching out to workers, and so employers also deserved "free speech" at the workplace-never mind that corporations control the hiring and firing of staff, wages, benefits and job assignments.

Since Taft-Hartley, the trend toward employer harassment has only gotten worse. Lance Compa, senior lecturer at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, writes recently in Human Rights and Workers' Rights in the United States:

In the 1950s, workers who suffered reprisals for exercising the right to freedom of association numbered in the hundreds each year. In 1969, the number was more than 6,000. By the early 2000s, some 20,000 workers each year suffered a reprisal serious enough for the National Labor Relations Board to issue a "back pay" or other remedial order.

Further, the NLRB's structural and procedural delays greatly benefit the employer--and employers increasingly utilize the NLRB's systemic delays as a prime management tactic in fighting union organizing, as demonstrated by the sharp rise in unfair labor practice cases over the decades. In 1953, 63 percent of the Board's caseload consisted of union representation elections, compared with 37 percent unfair labor practice cases. By 2002, that ratio was more than reversed: Twenty percent of NLRB cases involved union representation, compared with 80 percent devoted to unfair labor practices.

"As long as there is no law to protect us better, I don't think it is likely that I will organize again," Mario Ramirez said, after the Manhattan sewing shop where he worked closed down in the wake of a 1997 union organizing drive.

Ramirez was among workers profiled in a Human Rights Watch report. Human Rights Watch, an international organization that conducts systematic investigations of human rights abuses in 70 countries, turned its attention to the United States in 2000 and concluded that "freedom of association is a right under severe, often buckling pressure when workers in the United States try to exercise it."

The 211-page report thoroughly documented the extent to which U.S. labor laws and the NLRB structure and court system that enforce them systematically deny workers the freedom to form unions. In not taking a strong stand in support of workers' freedom to form unions, and in making it difficult and nearly impossible for them to do so, the United States flies against international standards-those which it presumably would enforce in spreading democracy to other nations.

One of those internationally-agreed upon set of principles is the 1948 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, which the United States signed. The Declaration recognizes the right to join a union and bargain as a basic human right. Another international agreement, the International Labor Organization's Declaration on fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, also sets out freedom of association as the first such principle and right. According the Human Rights Watch report, when the United States in 1998 adopted the ILO declaration, then-Labor Secretary Alexis Herman said:

The ILO has underlined and clarified the importance of the fundamental rights of workers in an era of economic globalization...ILO members have accepted the need to be accountable and with this action there will now be a process within the ILO to demonstrate that accountability.

It comes as no surprise that the Bush administration's disregard for international treaties and agreements carries over to the UN and ILO Declarations. But this administration has not just ignored international norms for workplace rights-it has made destroying unions a top priority. Together with Bush's anti-worker NLRB appointees, the ability of U.S. workers to freely join unions is being rapidly eroded. Take a look at what's happened in the past few years:

In forming the Department of Homeland Security, Bush revoked the right of its 180,000 employees to be represented by unions.

In 2005, the NLRB ruled certain newspaper carriers cannot organize.

The NLRB in 2004 took away from graduate employees their right to a federally-protected unionization process. They can join a union, but the employer no longer has to recognize the union.

The NLRB again in 2004 ruled against workers, effectively eliminating the right of temporary agency workers to form a union.

The Bush administration in 2003 denied collective bargaining rights to tens of thousands of newly federalized airport security screeners.

A Bush administration official terminated the collective bargaining rights of more than 1,300 workers at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency in 2003.

Bush in 2002 issued an executive order revoking union representation for workers in the Justice Department's U.S. attorney's offices, the Criminal Division, the U.S. National Central Bureau of INTERPOL, the National Drug Intelligence Center and Office of Intelligence Policy and Review.

Meanwhile, 23 states have revoked the right to organize from public employees and as of 2005, 32 million U.S. workers are expressly forbidden to organize. And in a potentially devastating decision, the Bush-packed NLRB could issue rulings in three cases that could alter the definition of supervisor-potentially taking away the federally protected right to form unions from up to 8 million nurses, building trades workers, newspaper and television employees and others.

Clearly, the Bush administration's opposition to unions is ideological-as is that of so many corporate employers-and not based on rational analyses. Because when it comes to productivity, in nearly all cases studied, union membership increases productivity.

Back at Cingular, management figured out that union representation among its staff did not decrease productivity or harm the bottom line. Instead, in the most recent quarter, Cingular achieved the best financial results in its history.

According to a July 17 Workforce Management article (subscription required), Lew Walker, Cingular vice president of human resources for operations and labor, believes there's a connection between a union workforce and a better bottom line.

The company remained neutral while a majority of workers authorized union representation by signing cards. The result, according to the company, is engaged employees who are focused on customer service and building the Cingular network rather than nursing grudges against management.

"We view the CWA as a strategic partner,'' Walker said last month at an event at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "What's good for Cingular is good for CWA.''

That attitude undergirds negotiations on wages, benefits and work rules, according to Walker. "They allow a contract to go out that allows us to be competitive,'' he says of the union.

He emphasized several times the fierce battles that are waged every day between competing wireless carriers. Cingular, with 39,000 employees in unions, is the only one staffed by organized labor.

Rather than the politically impossible task of pushing for repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, with its myriad of provisions affecting every inch of labor law-from barring supervisory employees from union membership to arcane rules covering secondary boycotts-the union movement is pressing for a new set of labor laws. The Employee Free Choice Act, introduced in the current Congress as S. 842 and H.R. 1696, would do the following:

Allow employees to freely choose whether to form unions by signing cards authorizing union representation.

Provide mediation and arbitration for first-contract disputes.

Establish stronger penalties for violation of employee rights when workers seek to form a union and during first-contract negotiations.

The bill has 216 co-sponsors in the House, two short of the total needed for passage. In the Senate, 43 lawmakers have signed on. (See a list of co-sponsors here.) Even if passed, the Bush administration would veto the bill, making the upcoming elections in 2006 and 2008 all the more critical for working people.

Yet talking with lawmakers around the country about why new labor laws are needed and getting their sign-on has been a critical part of the AFL-CIO union movement's education process among House and Senate members and their staff-too many of whom, while in general supportive of issues affecting working people, have no idea the amount of harassment workers endure when they seek to form unions.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, long a champion of working people, introduced the legislation in the Senate in 2005 and 2003, along with Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) in the House. In Labor and Employment Relations Association magazine, Kennedy writes:

The time has come to stop the rampant abuse of millions of employees. Workers who are trying to form a union or obtain a first contract face insurmountable battles under current law. The Employee Free Choice Act levels the playing field for these brave workers, and ensures that the law does a better job of protecting their fundamental rights to organize and bargain with their employer. Surely this nation owes its hard-working men and women these opportunities.

Each year, on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, workers and their unions hold events across the nation to remind and educate lawmakers and the public about the need for fair labor laws to ensure working people in this country have the freedom the United States champions in other nations. Last year, 11 Nobel Peace Laureates including The Rev. Desmond Tutu and Lech Walesa, former president of Poland, signed a statement supporting U.S. workers freedom to form unions (seems like just yesterday the United States was urging Poland to support a free trade union movement in Solidarnosc...).

This year, we again will be out on Dec. 10. But all of us in the union movement know that only with broad support can we succeed in ensuring America's workers have the same options as workers in other democratic countries. AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff succinctly sums up how we must go forward:

Forming coalitions and alliances with like-minded people and organizations, linking local organizing campaigns and workplace fights to our larger national struggle, turning local efforts into human rights campaigns-all...are essential to our ultimate victory.

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