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Stronger opposition to unions hints at employer fears

Rochester Business Journal
March 13, 2009
Recent guest opinion pieces in this newspaper about the proposed Employee Free Choice Act by Michael Hausknecht of Nixon Peabody and Marci Miller of Associated Builders and Contractors, as well as Sandra Parker's column representing the Rochester Business Alliance, are full of corporate propaganda but devoid of facts.

Opposition to unions goes far beyond the pages of the Rochester Business Journal, however. In the near future we will see commercials around the clock from corporate front groups that have amassed a quarter of a billion dollars for scare tactics, as we have already seen in an ad using an actor from "The Sopranos."

Parker cites a so-called survey by the Center for Union Facts, which claims that 82 percent of non-unionized workers do not want to belong to a union. This claim was part of data submitted by the center's founder, Richard Berman, a hired gun for the tobacco, alcohol and fast-food industries, to Republican and Democratic Senate staff members in March 2007. Senate staffers requested that the data be substantiated by the National Labor Relations Board; the NLRB responded that Berman's data was not substantiated.

Think about this: If 82 percent of non-union workers are against unionization, and business spends 25 times the amount that labor spends in federal elections, according to Federal Election Commission data from the 2004 elections, and business interests spend in excess of $2 billion a year lobbying, then how did the Employee Free Choice Act pass the House of Representatives in 2007 and have a majority in the Senate, both with bipartisan support? It failed only because of the inability to achieve a supermajority of 60 votes in the Senate to force cloture.

Parker, Miller and Hausknecht all claim that the Employee Free Choice Act will not help workers but only give more power to the unions. This is classic corporate propaganda: The boss is your friend, we are a family, you don't need a union, etc. Union advocates and leaders come from the ranks. The head of the electricians' union is an electrician; the same is true for the carpenters, bricklayers, teachers, autoworkers, police, firefighters, steelworkers and, yes, postal workers. We are elected by our co-workers, and not one penny from any employer or from a union treasury may be spent to aid a candidate. In fact, we are the only democratic institutions in the country run solely by and for workers.

The claim by the business community that a secret-ballot election when workers decide to unionize is a cornerstone of democracy is a joke to those who have been involved in the process. Instead of accepting the claims of the rancid "Center for Union Facts," one can go to www.AFLCIO.org, click on "Employee Free Choice Act" and read congressional testimony from workers involved in the process-people who were not union organizers but wanted a union in their workplace. Under threat of perjury, they testified about being subjected to intimidation, threats from employers, demotions, undesirable shift changes and firings, simply because they wished to exercise a democratic right.

Imagine a political campaign in which you can hear and read only one candidate's point of view and it is forced on you by the boss when you are at work. You hear the other side only if you want to, on your own time and outside of work.

Claims that EFCA will permit intimidation by union organizers are not borne out by the facts. Complaints issued by the National Labor Relations Board in fiscal 2004 were against employers 88.5 percent of the time. These are the most serious complaints, since employers can hire, fire and demote. Any claim that such instances are rare is disingenuous.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 29,559 workers received back pay in fiscal 2007 in cases alleging employer violations of worker rights under the Labor Relations Act. Some of these cases were more than a year old because of appeals and delays by company attorneys. Since back pay awards in such cases are reduced by other earnings during the period involved and workers cannot afford to remain unemployed during the lengthy appeals process, back pay generally is minimal, a slap on the wrist-and that creates an incentive for employers to break the law.

I must note a few other statistics from congressional testimony about the current "democratic" process defended by business interests:

--Employees are fired in a quarter of private-sector union organizing campaigns.

--More than 90 percent of private-sector employers whose employees want to join a union compel those workers to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda.

--Seventy-eight percent of private employers require supervisors to deliver anti-union messages to workers whose jobs and pay they control.

--And even when workers overcome the obstacles in the current employer-controlled process, they are not able to get a first contract 44 percent of the time. As attorney Hausknecht states, the law doesn't require the employer to reach agreement. It is common for an employer to negotiate for more than a year, shedding pro-union workers during that time, and then challenge the union majority, call for a new election and start the process all over.

The opposition to binding arbitration in EFCA is just fearmongering. Collective bargaining through representatives of one's own choosing became public policy in 1936 with the passage of the Wagner Act during the Great Depression, and arbitration was public policy soon after that in the 1940s. Both business and labor supported the War Labor Board and arbitration as an alternative to work stoppages that would hurt the war effort. Business did not want such events to disrupt profits. So much for claims that business cannot afford better pay and labor strength during the recession.

In 35 years I have never met a union advocate or group of union members who wanted to hurt or destroy their employer. The workplace is where we receive our paychecks to support our families. However, we need a shared prosperity, unlike what we have had after the last four recessions. Those recoveries redistributed more and more wealth to the richest, damaging our country, putting more children into poverty, eliminating health care and jobs, denying entry into the middle class for millions of people in a race to the bottom.

Even conservatives like George Will have stated that labor unions deserve the majority of the credit for building the middle class. Non-union workers know where good wages, benefits, overtime, paid vacation and safety laws came from, and it wasn't from fair bosses. We do understand reality.

Since the dawn of capitalism, owners have had a financial interest in vilifying unions to deter workers from demanding better wages, benefits and job security, their fair share of the wealth they produce. However, only in the past 30 years have we seen the spread of hatred for the very concept of unions and collective bargaining, evident in Miller's guest opinion. And what has this gotten us? Job loss, lack of accountability and enormous greed at the top, where seven-, eight- and even nine-figure salaries are common, not to mention private jets and expensive resorts with golden bath massages.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are told that an extension of unemployment benefits has been approved. The result is that consumer demand is down the tubes and our economy is in critical condition. The chickens have come home to roost.

Is anyone questioning businesses' newfound interest, backed by millions of dollars, in the secret ballot and workplace democracy? The bosses and their attorneys know that democracy stops at the workplace door. The law-with few exceptions, such as civil rights discrimination-is employment at will. One can legally be fired without cause, for any reason or no reason. One can be fired for free speech or opinions the boss doesn't agree with.

You, your property and even your bodily fluids can be searched without reasonable cause in the workplace. Bosses can pay as little as we will work for, no matter how profitable the company is. You may be a 20-year employee with a great work record, and the boss can give your job to his 18-year-old nephew tomorrow. It's all perfectly legal without a union contract.

It is amazing to me that in a country guaranteeing freedom of association, where a few misguided Americans can join the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazi Party or the Communist Party, business interests and the politicians they own are horrified and spending millions to stop workers from joining unions.

If employers were really interested in fairly distributing the profits, in workplace democracy, they would encourage workers to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, to have a voice on the job. Don't hold your breath.

James Bertolone is president of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also is president of American Postal Workers Union Local 215.

03/13/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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