The struggle for the right to organize a union

While 45 percent of U.S. workers express the desire to have a union, only 13 percent have one. Using bold, repressive and mostly illegal methods, corporate America has held new organizing to a tiny trickle as it systematically works to weaken and destroy unions where they exist.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) have introduced the Employee Free Choice Act at the initiative of the AFL-CIO. In the Senate, it is S.1925, with 26 sponsors. In the House, it is HB 3619, with 113 sponsors. It will take an earthquake-strength movement to bring passage.

This new law couldn’t come too soon. The National Labor Relations Act, passed as the Wagner Act in 1935, and greatly weakened by the Taft-Harley amendments, doesn’t cover much and is rarely enforced. Penalties against violators are so late and so weak as to make employer lawbreaking the preferred method of remaining union-free.

How do these employers do it?

Corporations hire anti-union consultants who have the tactics down to a science. They bring together the first level supervisors – the ones closest to the workers with the greatest influence over the conditions of daily work. These supervisors are told that their only job until the union election is to assure that the 15 or so workers they supervise vote no. Each supervisor must report on each worker’s attitudes and carry out individualized tactics to influence each one. Current labor law provides no rights to these supervisors. Any supervisor who does not agree to the plan is told, truthfully, that she or he can and will legally be fired for failure to carry it out.

In what one employer called the “wring-out,” if the supervisor did not cooperate by providing detailed information on each worker, the anti-union consultants would wring the information out of him.

Does the employee have a disabled child? Great! The supervisor must pull the employee aside to let him know that if the union is voted in, his health insurance will change. His child will not be covered because this is a pre-existing condition. Another employee is going through a rocky marriage. Since that employee is particularly sensitive to the issue of economic security, the supervisor is instructed to inform the employee that the company will never negotiate with the union and the plant will close if workers go union, using the line, “I’d hate to see you have to face that in addition to the stress you are under. Won’t you commit to me that you will vote no?” Another employee is single but pregnant – a very useful piece of information. The supervisor calls her in to make certain she knows that as a single person her health insurance does not cover the delivery. She is told how much it will likely cost. Then she is told that the company could change this to help her – the first step is to remove the union button.

NLRB elections are rarely democratic. The full force of the employer’s control over the worker’s job is ruthlessly brought to bear in the final period preceding the election. Firings are common and highly effective for the employer. Nothing else invokes such fear. If the NLRB finds the firing to be illegal, it happens years down the road when the union has already been defeated. Most cases don’t get that far since other workers must risk their jobs to bring the charge. The NLRB initiates no proceedings on its own. The burden is all on the workers and the union to seek to enforce the law.

The Employee Free Choice Act wouldn’t return us to the fuller protections of the original Wagner Act and the Norris-LaGuardia Act. Workers would still be denied some effective forms of struggle such as the secondary boycott. “Right to work” laws would remain in place. Unions could still be sued for unfair labor practices. And no law can give us the dynamic and vibrant union movement that inspires workers with its vision. Yet the advances would be real and vitally important: recognition through card check; tripling of economic penalties for unlawful firing of workers; priority given by the NLRB to cases where the law is broken while workers are organizing.

On Dec. 10, union and community activists held 90 events in 64 cities to commemorate the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose Article 23 provides for freedom of association of workers and their right to build unions. The Dec. 10 events pointed to the absence of these rights in the U.S. Activists in every congressional district have begun work to put this issue on the agenda in the 2004 election campaign. You can begin by sending letters and e-mails to your representative and senators asking them to become co-sponsors of the Employee Free Choice Act.



Carolyn Taylor is a labor activist in Kentucky. She can be reached at pww@pww.org.