Defending the right to organize

CHICAGO – “The NLRB is a meat-grinder,” said AFL-CIO Director of Organizing Stuart Acuff, “and most workers who enter into it are ground up into sausage.”

Acuff was one of a trio of national labor leaders speaking at a recent organizing conference sponsored by the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL). A long-time activist and former leader of the Atlanta Federation of Labor, Acuff asserted “the saddest fact in America – American workers no longer have the right to organize.”

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was established when Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935. The original intention of the act was to codify workers’ rights to organize into unions. The NLRA set up an election process, overseen by the NLRB, which was supposed to be free of employer threats and coercion that made it difficult for workers to organize a union. While this process was instrumental in helping millions of workers to form unions during its first decades of existence, subsequent anti-labor legislation, court rulings, right-wing Board appointees, and union-busting employer practices have undermined it to the point that union organizers say the NLRB actually inhibits the right to organize.

“It ain’t a right if you’re afraid to use it,” Acuff said.

Bruce Rayner, president of UNITE! (Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees) gave examples of his union’s actions to create the right to organize, and he didn’t mince any words. “We’ve got to change what our unions are doing,” he said, “and organize with a vengeance. We need to be willing to get down and dirty with the corporations.”

UNITE has rallied community support with creative and aggressive “corporate campaigns” aimed at forcing employers to grant union recognition through “card check,” a straightforward process under which union recognition is granted after a majority of workers sign union cards, thus by-passing the NLRB election procedure.

Terrence O’Sullivan, head of the 800,000-member Laborers Union (LIUNA), gave a building trades perspective to the organizing push. He emphasized the need for a strategic approach that doesn’t just go for numbers, but looks at building “market share,” the share of work in a given industry that is done with union labor. The Laborers focus on market share rather than raw membership numbers because it is the share of the market that workers control that determines their ability to win better pay, benefits and working conditions, says LIUNA’s website.

O’Sullivan said the battle for market share includes fighting for legislation that requires government contracts to include provisions for apprenticeship programs and takes into account employer safety records to “level the playing field” for union contractors. “We can’t have successful organizing without successful political programs,” he said.

O’Sullivan linked organizing with fighting for the rights of “undocumented immigrants who have contributed to our economy and many of whom are long-time members of our of organizations,” adding: “Our commitment and tenacity to immigration reform will define organized labor for decades to come.” O’Sullivan went on to challenge the delegates to “look at the history of our country – as proud as we are to be Americans – our country has a history of discrimination .… [We must] make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.”

From the podium, CFL leaders Dennis Gannon and Tim Leahy applauded in agreement. “You’ll be hearing a lot about the [Immigrants’ Rights] Freedom Rides from the CFL,” said Gannon. The Federation is planning a major initiative this summer in sending off Chicago’s contingent to the national activity, which will bring busloads of immigrant workers and their supporters from eight cities across the nation to lobby in Washington and rally in New York.

In another sign of the CFL’s departure from “business as usual,” Gannon announced to the standing-room-only gathering that he and Leahy had decided to cut the conference registration fee in half to allow for maximum attendance.

Teamster 705 organizer Jackie Tyler found the meeting’s militancy “very refreshing. It made me want to get up and fight right now,” the former UPS worker told the World. Tyler liked the emphasis on involving the membership in organizing. “Our local does that, and it works,” she said.

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org