LaborTalk for January 23, 2008

If unions are so good (and they are!) for workers,
why aren't millions of them rushing to join? (4)

Workers Can't Rely on Unions
To Protect Them from Firings

By Harry Kelber

If you don't belong to a union, the AFL-CIO is trying to woo you as a potential member with quite an attractive pitch. It states that union members earn as much as 30 percent more than you do, and that's true, whether you're white, a woman, an African-American, Hispanic or other ethnic group.

Nor is that all. A union can get you better health-care and pension benefits than if you act alone. Working conditions are a lot better. And you don't have to go cap-in-hand to ask your employer for a wage increase or register a complaint, because the union acts in your behalf by bargaining with your boss.

But you just can't walk into a union headquarters and ask for a union job. It's not that simple. A union is not an employment agency. If you want a union job, you'll get one by organizing a majority of your co-workers to sign union authorization cards. When you've done that, the union will go to bat for you and do what is necessary to get you a contract that will entitle you to a package of wage increases and improved benefits.

You are warned that it's not easy to join a union, because your boss is adamantly opposed to dealing with a labor organization. If he finds out you're pro-union, he has many ways to pressure you into changing your mind. His supervisors will watch your every move on the job — whom you talk to on the shop floor or in the bathroom.

You will be forced to attend "captive audience" meetings and listen to anti-union speeches and videos. You may be told that the company will shut down or relocate if the workers vote for the union. You'll have to be constantly on guard to prevent the boss from suspecting you're pro-union.

What happens if the boss finds out that you're trying to unionize his company? He can change your shift and work schedule, downgrade your job, change your lunch-time and use other ways to intimidate and harass you to abandon the union. And if all else fails, he'll fire you.

Every 23 minutes, a worker is fired or discriminated against for supporting a union, according to American Rights at Work, based on National Labor Relations Board reports.. In FY 2005, as many as 31,358 workers, who were fired illegally, received back pay and an offer to return to their former jobs under the NLRB ruling.

When workers are discharged during an organizing campaign, the union sends the NLRB an " "unfair labor practice" (ULP) charge with the names of those fired. Those discharged workers are not given union membership cards or any other consideration. They are left out in the cold. Their cases before the NLRB may take years, during which they are on their own. (In 50 percent of the decisions issued by the NLRB in unfair labor practice cases, it took more than 1,232 days from the filing of the charge to the Board's actual decisions.

Employers can fire pro-union workers at will, with fairly little expense. When they lose their NLRB cases after considerable legal delay, they have to pay their discharged workers an average of $3,800. They or their company pay no fine for violating the law. For large employers, it's a cheap way to bust a union organizing campaign.

'No More Firing of Pro-Union Workers, Mr. Boss'

Let's suppose unions announced publicly that it would not permit any employer to fire a worker for union activity. Unions would have to be prepared to follow through on their promises if employers continued their practice of discharging pro-union workers. Let's look at a possible scenario:

Company X has just fired five employees for "insubordination," but actually because they were trying to form a trade union. The five meet with the union organizer, who tells them "we're going to fight like hell until you're all back on your jobs." The organizer calls the CEO of Company X for a meeting to discuss the reinstatement of the five employees. The CEO or his subordinates refuse to talk to a union representative.

At this point, the union swings into action. It sets up an information picket-line before Company X, with appropriate placards and batches of leaflets to hand out to passersby about the injustice done to the five. It calls a press conference, at which each of the five tells his or her own story. It invests in a full-page ad in the local newspaper, with photos of each of the five "victims," with a synopsis of their experience. The union can buy local radio and TV time to inform the community and win public sympathy.

The union strives to make the reinstatement of the five a cause célèbre in the community. It may ask that a committee of community residents meet with management and the union to discuss the firings. It may challenge the CEO to a public debate on the discharge issue. It could picket the home of the CEO and the key stockholders. It can call on civil rights organizations in the community to intervene in the case, because of the violation of worker rights.

Nor does this exhaust the actions the union can take, carefully timed and prioritized, to force the company to reinstate the five discharged employees. And if the union can win their reinstatement, all the workers will have evidence that they can count on the union to defend their interests It will demonstrate union strength. It will make it considerably easier to organize any anti-union company.

Does anyone have a better strategy to offer?

Article (5) of "Why Workers Don't Join Unions" will be posted here on Wednesday, January 30.

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