Americas choice: Union, yes!

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Why the Employee Free Choice Act will benefit the economy, democracy

Most Americans are working harder than ever as the “good life” they dream about for themselves and their children slips further and further out of their reach.

The problem affects almost everyone, not just union and non-union workers but small businesses and entrepreneurs of all types.

Median household income in 2008 was $2,000 less than it was in 2000, even though worker productivity was up 20 percent during that same period. If income growth had matched growth in productivity, instead of regressing, the average family would have earned $12,000 more than it had in 2000.

This situation has contributed to the building of majority support for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. This includes support from the labor movement and its allies, majorities in both houses of Congress and President Barack Obama.





Small business boost

When workers can join a union the economy will grow again, the bill’s supporters say.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in a recent article “the gains workers made in the last century would never have been possible had union organizers not marched and pushed and gone door to door, shop to shop, to stand up for their fellow workers.”

Answering the concerns he has heard from small business owners about the free choice law, Kerry also pointed out that according to a U.S. Small Business Administration report small business bankruptcy rates are lower in states with high unionization rates and higher where workers don’t have a voice. Plus, he said, the Employee Free Choice Act makes no changes to the small business exemptions under our labor laws.

Many small business owners realize that the biggest threat to their success comes from the very forces opposed to the Employee Free Choice Act – big corporations looking for any way possible to drive the little guys out of business.

So why does joining a union help the entire country?

Union members – women and men, immigrant or native born, white, black, Latino, Asian or Native American — earn 30 percent higher wages, on average, and are 60 percent more likely to have employer-based health insurance. This gives them more money to spend in their communities.

The health of the entire economy, backers of free choice say, depends on ending the growing inequality in earning power – an inequality that got worse as anti-labor policies weakened the unions over the last 30 years or more.

The federal stimulus package is a good way to jump-start the economy, but it is not enough to solve the crisis of inequality that has been growing for decades. Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said recently “Working families were struggling to survive even before the current recession” and the Employee Free Choice Act is necessary because “policies focused only on job growth will simply put us back on the path toward greater inequality. If we truly want to rebuild a good jobs economy that creates jobs, sustains families and sustains dreams, we have to enact the Employee Free Choice Act.”





Making it easier for workers

Essentially, the Employee Free Choice Act makes it easier for men and women to join a union in their workplace. It allows workers to form unions through majority sign-up, helps them secure a contract in a reasonable amount of time and it stiffens penalties against employers who break the law.

The corporate bosses claim they are concerned about “democracy” and “preserving the secret ballot.”

The opposite is true. The Employee Free Choice Act would restore democratic rights put in place by the Wagner Act during the Great Depression. It removes from employers — and restores to workers — the choice of whether to form a union by majority sign-up or election.

The stories on this page show the falsehood of the arguments of opponents who say unions are out to take away workers’ rights to a free election or that it is unions who harass and intimidate workers.

Free choice will help pull our economy out of the abyss by strengthening the labor movement and giving workers a bigger, fairer share of the wealth they produce. What could be more democratic than that?





Fired!

When workers try to organize a union at their workplace, they are too often fired. A newly released report by John Schmitt of the Center for Economic Policy and Research says firings took place in 30 percent of workplaces where there were union organizing campaigns. Businesses are stepping up their attacks on unions, the report shows.

Phillip Jackson, an apprentice welder and member of Local 630 of the Pipefitters’ union in West Palm Beach told how he was fired from his job at Mechanical Industrial Corp.

“I didn’t do anything in public or at the workplace. I spoke privately, and quietly, with individual co-workers at coffee shops, restaurants or other places away from the company. I didn’t pressure anyone, I just talked about some of the benefits of being in a union. Before I knew it I was called into the manger’s office. He told me that they didn’t want any union people at the place and that I was fired.”





What secret ballot?

Sara Steffens thought the hard part of forming a union was the time spent talking to her newspaper co-workers and collecting signed cards from them seeking union representation.

The CWA News reported that her toughest days, however, were facing six weeks of anti-union propaganda and scare tactics before the union election. The bosses told workers they’d have to schedule their bathroom breaks through the union, that there wouldn’t be any more raises, that workers couldn’t have flexible shifts or expect good story assignments, that a contract could take years – or forever – to bargain and layoffs were likely.

Despite all this, the 230 workers at nine MediaNews-owned papers in California voted for the union. Just two weeks after the victory, 29 workers were fired, two thirds of them union supporters. Steffens, an award-winning reporter at the Contra Costa Times, was among them.

The company used its captive audience meetings to identify union activists or people suspected of supporting the union. Lower level editors were questioned about these individuals.

“We had a manager who admitted that he was being asked for daily counts of where everyone he supervised stood. How is that a secret ballot?” Steffens asked.





Locked out after going union

Gail Warner, from southern Illinois, says if free choice was the law she and her 56 co-workers would not have ended up out on the street, without a job for three years.

Warner was employed as an outpatient secretary at Heartland Human Services in Effingham, Ill. when, in October 2005, the company began slashing benefits and forcing workers to work overtime with no extra pay.

“I realized,” she said, “that only with a union could we fight back and we won an election for representation by AFSCME in 2006. Since then, the company has refused to negotiate.”

The Employee Free Choice Act would end the ability of employers to drag their feet in contract negotiations once a union is voted in.

After one full year of trying to get the company to talk, the workers went out on strike for a year. Then Warner and her co-workers voted to go back without a contract. They thought after years of foot dragging, Heartland might be ready to talk.

No such luck. “Heartless (sic) Human Services locked us out and we’ve been on the picket line ever since,” said Warner.





‘Companies hold all the cards’

“The irony of it all – Bush got on TV and said we were in Iraq because we had to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, stop terrorism and spread democracy over there. I served my country honorably over there only to come back home to a place where, as a worker, I don’t even have the right to union representation. The companies hold all the cards. They do us serious hurt if we try to exercise our rights,”

The words were those of U.S. Army Sgt. Jose Hill, 30, a resident of Chicago’s South Side and a Comcast technician who belongs to Local 21 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Comcast is “punishing the union workers at its one union site in Chicago by paying them less” than it pays workers at its two non-union sites.

“They trample on their workers in order to keep the others from invoking their right to join a union,” he said.





Forty percent pay cut

Forty percent pay cuts and rules that allow anyone to be fired at whim motivated Angela Winningham, a Delta airline flight attendant for 21 years, to urge co-workers to support unionization at the newly merged Delta-Northwest Airline.

She said management at the “new” Delta treated itself to huge executive pay hikes as it slashed the wages of its workers. The president who walked away from “old” Delta, Leo Mullen, left with a $90 million golden parachute.

There are 114 labor law violations pending against the airline, all held up by the National Labor Relations Board under the Bush administration.

Winningham was forced to set up a table with union literature far away from where most workers pass, in a “non-work” area at the airport. A ceiling camera appeared soon after she began her solicitations and, whenever she was able to speak to a co-worker, “supervisors appeared out of nowhere.”

Where flight attendants sign up for assignments, she said, the company posted huge signs urging “No” to the union, urging workers throw their ballots away.





A dream come true

Opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act claim that majority sign up would enable union organizers to force unwilling workers to join against their will.

No one had better say that to Hector Capote, a Cuban immigrant in Miami.

His company, AT&T Wireless, recognized his union, Local 3122 of the Communication Workers of America, as soon as the majority of workers signed union cards.

“The very idea that the union or anyone else was forcing us to sign union cards is completely ridiculous,” he said. “The decision was up to us. It was our choice.”

He described how, after four years of dead end jobs, “many of them off the books, off the clock, and with no pay,” he finally had a “good union job.”

Capote tried, but failed, to hold back tears as he spoke about his father, “who, in his entire life, never made more than $13 an hour, never had a union, never had health care, sacrificed and went without.

“I really thank God that I had a chance, as a union worker, to provide for some of the things he otherwise never would have had. Without the union, I could never have paid him back.”





All interviews by John Wojcik, except for Sara Steffens