Labor Fights for Rights

Labor Fights for Rights

Workers have lost the right to organize. A new effort aims to get it back.


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.

Most Americans say they think employer anti-union activity is illegitimate–but they also don’t realize it’s happening. Only 44 percent of Americans (and only half of union members) think that employers oppose workers’ efforts to form unions, according to a February survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AFL-CIO, and 58 percent said they would disapprove of such employer opposition. Americans overwhelmingly oppose tactics they think are rare but are actually quite common. For example, 92 percent of the public thinks it’s unacceptable to fire workers who support the union, but only 17 percent think that employers often fire supporters; 78 percent think it’s unacceptable for supervisors to urge individual employees to vote against the union, but only 20 percent think it happens often (it occurs in three-fourths of all campaigns).

Those employer tactics work. As the ratio of workers fired for organizing to the number voting for a union rose over the past five decades, the rate of union success declined. In one extensive study, 36 percent of workers who were opposed to a union–more than the critical margin in most elections–said they voted no because of management pressure. Overwhelmingly, they feared losing their job, a clear indication that employer “speech” is coercive in these situations simply because of the power management has over workers’ livelihoods. In the public sector, where managers rarely oppose unions vigorously, if at all, unions win 85 percent of their elections, compared with the actively anti-union private sector, where unions win only about half their elections.

Although the NLRB election process nominally gives workers a chance to vote on union representation, employers can use the rules to turn the process into a “meat grinder” for workers who want a union, according to the AFL-CIO’s new organizing director, Stewart Acuff. Consequently, unions now do an estimated four-fifths of their organizing outside NLRB election supervision. They increasingly try through collective bargaining, political leverage, threats of strikes or legislation to neutralize managerial opposition, often with agreements that employers will recognize the union when a majority of workers have signed union cards. With such agreements, unions typically win two-thirds of organizing campaigns, despite widespread management violations of the agreements, according to research by Eaton and Jill Kriesky of West Virginia University, and they win nearly every campaign when there are no employer violations. “The key thing is neutrality,” argues Tom Woodruff, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “Card check is just the method to gain neutrality.”

Initially, after the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, the NLRB required employers to remain neutral in organizing campaigns (though obviously not all did so), and nearly all unions were recognized simply through a card check, not an election. But the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act permitted employers to oppose unionization and to demand that an election be held. Although some unions have found ways to negotiate or pressure for individual deals to neutralize employers, they have so far done much less to block anti-union attacks across the board. Ultimately, unions want to move back to the original spirit of the 1935 legislation, which still states that it is national policy to encourage collective bargaining. Republicans, on the other hand, are trying to make it even harder for unions to keep employers neutral. For example, Republican Representative Charles Norwood of Georgia has proposed banning card-check recognition, and Bush’s NLRB is challenging a California law that prohibits businesses from using state funds to fight unionization.

Early last year a small group of unions–eventually including the SEIU, UNITE, the hotel and restaurant employees (HERE), the Teamsters, the Communications Workers (CWA), the Laborers and public employees (AFSCME)–began discussing the formation of an independent group that would protest employer abuses and defend the right to organize, much as the employer-backed National Right to Work Committee has worked against union rights. “Somebody has to get up every day thinking about how we make the rights of workers to organize in America a civil rights issue,” said UNITE president Bruce Raynor. “It has to be broad, not just organized labor but academics, intellectuals, entertainers, athletes.” Former Representative David Bonior has agreed to chair ARAW, the organization that emerged from these discussions. The AFL-CIO–after overcoming initial shock at the implication the federation wasn’t doing enough to fight for worker rights–agreed to contribute $1 million for the first year, and the initiating unions will together put in roughly $2 million, but the group will soon be under control of a board composed mainly of individuals and organizational representatives from outside the labor movement. “The less involvement this has of labor unions, the stronger it may become,” argued SEIU president Andrew Stern. “It is an issue of how big corporations have way too much power in the workplace.”

ARAW will focus on persuading the general public to support the right to organize, attacking corporate wrongdoers and keeping the heat on politicians. “All these Democrats who ask for money but won’t support the right to organize will be in our bull’s-eye,” said the group’s national director, Jonathan Tasini, former president of the National Writers Union. “But even among progressives and the liberal community, there is still a blindness about the importance of unions and even a disdain for unions, which I find outrageous…. I want all the elite opinion-makers and liberals who are willing to get arrested protesting apartheid to put their lives on the line the same way for the right to organize.”

Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO–which has had difficulty defining its role in organizing–has greatly expanded its own Voice@Work project, which will be more directed toward educating and mobilizing union members to support organizing and enlisting them in efforts to drum up public support for specific campaigns. Voice@Work will attempt to make “every organizing campaign a community referendum on whether workers have the freedom to form a union in this country,” according to its director, Andy Levin. “Instead of having a war behind closed doors with employers, we have to reach out to religious, political, environmental and civic leaders, and we have to empower workers to tell their story and ask for support.”

A central part of the plan is educating and mobilizing union members to combat employer attacks on the right to organize, working in grassroots crusades such as those mounted for many years by Jobs With Justice, a nationwide network of labor-community coalitions that sponsor “workers’ rights boards” to highlight workplace abuses. “The key thing is we need to mobilize our own members,” argues CWA executive vice president Larry Cohen. “If 12 million union members get active, that will change things. But most union members don’t realize how bad the crisis is.” Building a long-term campaign for federal labor-law reform, Voice@Work will push for more state and local initiatives to facilitate organizing and educate candidates at all levels about business sabotage of worker rights. “We will have to have action that is strong enough to interfere with business as usual,” Acuff said. “There has to be some moral outrage. At the end of the day, it can’t be an economic fight. It has to be a moral fight.”

The right to organize will be featured prominently in Labor Day activities, including the annual “labor in the pulpit” appearances at houses of worship, and in this fall’s immigrant workers’ freedom ride, which will be taking place across the country to draw attention to the plight of undocumented workers. Unions are exposing all of the Democratic presidential candidates to workers who have suffered from employer anti-union campaigns and pressing for commitments to worker rights. Both the AFL-CIO’s Voice@Work and Jobs With Justice will mark International Human Rights Day, December 10, with right-to-organize demonstrations ranging from a mass rally in Los Angeles to smaller civil disobedience actions around the country.

The task for labor and its allies will not be simply informing the public and union members about employer abuses and defending workers who are trying to organize but changing the way people think about worker organization. Under the influence of struggles over globalization, unions are emphasizing that the right to organize at work—recognized as a fundamental human right in many international agreements–must be enforced in developing countries as well as the United States. But freedom of association at work is also an extension of the First Amendment into an arena that is as important, for individual rights and public policy, as electoral politics. Employers should not be able to restrict or impede it any more than they should be able to control their employees’ membership in a political organization. “When did workers get a chance to decide whether companies could belong to the National Association of Manufacturers?” asks Teamsters organizing director Jeff Farmer.

Beyond the fundamental rights issue, the ability of workers to organize has widespread implications for politics, public policy and the economy. If twice as many workers were in unions and their political behavior followed current patterns, the electorate would be larger and more liberal, tipping the balance of national politics to Democrats. More people would have health insurance and secure pensions. There would be less poverty and inequality. University of Wisconsin sociologist Joel Rogers justifiably argues that “the ability to join a union should be as uncontroversially accepted as joining the PTA,” but it is precisely because organization of workers affects the distribution of power and money that businesses and their political allies fight so hard.

Yet unions can change the business and political culture, as SEIU’s Justice for Janitors has done on a small scale in making card checks the standard for the building-ervices industry. “Our experience has been,” argues SEIU building services director Stephen Lerner, “when you establish something as a norm of behavior, it makes it much easier when you’re fighting someone who doesn’t accept it.” Despite the daunting challenge, there are signs–in public views of unions, corporate power, globalization and human rights–that the time is ripe to launch a movement dedicated to establishing the right to organize at work as an inalienable human right.

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