Sadius Isma came to the United States from Haiti looking for freedom and opportunity. But he found little of either when he and fellow workers at the Point Blank Body Armor factory in Oakland Park, Florida, decided to form a union. After 85 percent of the 350 workers had signed cards to join UNITE, the clothing and textile union, Isma led co-workers to the plant manager’s office on July 18, 2002, asking the company to recognize the union. The manager told him that it was illegal to form a union, Isma recounted, and shortly afterward called in the sheriff’s department, locked out the workers and had Isma arrested–then fired him.
Over the following months, the company fired two more leaders, threatened mass layoffs and offered some workers wage increases to stop them from joining a strike for union recognition–a six-month struggle under police and security-guard surveillance. Despite a rare court injunction and a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge’s decision that it had violated labor laws, Point Blank continues to fight the union, even as it expands operations with growing US military contracts. Isma had simply wanted better working conditions–respect, clean toilets, air-conditioning, a lunchroom–and a boost in his $6.75-an-hour pay, he said. “I didn’t expect the company to treat us like animals.”
Isma is not alone. When workers throughout the United States try to organize unions, they nearly always face systematic employer opposition, both legal and illegal, that intimidates many union-friendly workers, encourages anti-union hostility from other employers and creates a political climate that makes union organizing extremely difficult. “Virtually all academic research shows that employer opposition–legal and illegal–is the key factor in unions not organizing,” says Rutgers University professor Adrienne Eaton.
This has been known for some time. But now key union leaders have decided that they–with as many allies as they can enlist–need to escalate their efforts dramatically to change the overall public climate for organizing. The AFL-CIO and individual unions will step up efforts to educate and mobilize union members and labor-backed political candidates to fight for the right to organize, and they have launched a new organization–American Rights at Work (ARAW)–that will recruit sympathetic organizations and individuals outside the labor movement to win broader public support for workers’ rights. The labor movement hopes to make freedom of association at the workplace–the right of workers to organize unions and to bargain collectively–a civil right as sacrosanct as voting, and to make the pervasive anti-union campaigns of employers as illegitimate as Bull Connor’s attacks on voting rights in the 1960s.
The problem is not just a few bad apples, like Point Blank, but the vast majority of American businesses, from Wal-Mart to hospitals owned by religious groups doctrinally committed to worker rights. When workers try to organize, employers typically hire anti-union consultants (in 75 percent of organizing campaigns), force employees to attend anti-union meetings (92 percent), threaten to close the plant if the union wins (51 percent overall, but in 71 percent of manufacturing workplaces, where threats to move overseas are potent) and call in federal immigration agents (in 52 percent of campaigns involving undocumented workers). One-fourth of private-sector employers fire at least one worker for union activity during organizing campaigns. Nobody knows how many workers are fired each year for trying to organize, but the federal Dunlop commission reported in 1994 that the NLRB each year reinstated about 2,000 illegally discharged workers–a gross understatement of the total illegally fired. But even by that standard, one worker was fired for every forty-eight who voted for a union, compared with one fired for every 689 who voted for a union in the early 1950s. By a broader measure, according to a Human Rights Watch study, 24,000 workers proved in 1998 that employers had illegally discriminated against them for engaging in union activity. The consequences are huge. After roughly five decades of union slippage as a share of the work force, only 13.5 percent of all workers (and 8.5 percent of private-sector workers) belong to unions. But if workers didn’t face a war against their right to organize, surveys indicate, upward of 44 percent of workers would choose to belong to a union.