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Cross Burnings, Armed Sheriffs and Other Threats When Trying to Join a Union


(Photo via the Carpenter's Union of British Columbia, of a union organizing poster.  Some great ones on this website. — CHS)

Paul Pimentel, also known as PaulVa, is filling in for me tonight. Paul is with the Sheet Metal Workers union here in DC.

Imagine being forced to attend mandatory screenings of one sided propaganda videos on an almost daily basis for hours on end.  Imagine living under the fear that your supervisors can call you in to closed door meetings with no witness present on your behalf.  In those meetings you are measured on your “leanings.” If you fail to measure up to their “loyalty test,” you are systematically harassed and eventually fired.  If you make it as far as the general election without losing your livelihood or sanity, you find your polling location, along with everyone else’s, is at the establishment candidate’s office.  Even if you can successfully overcome all of the coercion and stick by your vote, you find that the candidate’s party you voted against now is appealing the voting results, and does so for years on end,  as a tactic to wear down the opposition – with no injunctive recourse to stop them.

Am I talking about Eastern Europe during the Cold War?  Is it Chile under August Pinochet?  The Galactic Empire in a galaxy far, far away?  Nope, not any of them.

It’s the American workplace as it functions today under the policies and rules of the National Labor Relations Board.  These are the same rules that govern not only the conduct of union elections but have a far wider impact.  The results of these elections, which have caused the number of union members to decline to almost 1 out of every 10 – now affect the working conditions and quality of life of every American who has to rely on a paycheck to make ends meet.

Knowing that what I described above is considered legal during union organization elections, would you be surprised to know that the penalties for employers who commit illegal actions are weak and ineffective? 

Voters in recent elections, such as Smithfield Packing in North Carolina, were met by hostile sheriffs armed with shotguns and dogs.  In September 2002, workers and civil rights activists in Washington, DC were harassed and shoved by agents from the U.S. Treasury Department when they attempted to visit a jobsite belonging to Basic Industries, Inc. – an employer who was refusing to recognize the results of an election and sit down with its employees to negotiate a contract.  African American voters in a 1996 campaign at Perdue Farms in Dolthan, Alabama drove into work on the morning of an election to be met by a burning cross.   To put that election in context, the cross burning was just one of 747 separate illegal actions Perdue Farms took during that organizing campaign – besides burning crosses the company also banned bathroom breaks (one female employee miscarried on the line), fired several dozen employees, videotaped and harassed hundreds of others, spied on and broke up worker organizing meetings and even deployed the local sheriff to act on its behalf.  Even Frank Perdue himself traveled down for a rare visit to promise employees that if they dared think about a union “he would shut down the plant and move it to Mexico.”

What kinds of penalties did these employers suffer?     Basic Industries continues to refuse to meet with the union its employees chose with no punitive cost to the firm.  Perdue Farms was scolded for its violations and told to participate in a rerun of the previous election – two years later with a whole new hand picked workforce which  not surprisingly voted against the union.  Smithfield Packaging did have to put up a piece of paper on company bulletin boards promising not to harass employees again – only to do so when another election was run with similar results.

Those three companies are just some egregious examples of a system that has allowed fines to become just a small cost of doing business.  It costs nothing for employers to fire workers during the course of an organizing campaign when all they have to pay is the worker’s salary for the time they were unemployed and nothing more.  The benefit the employer gets out of this is an atmosphere of fear that leads to further savings on higher wages and benefits down the road when frightened employees decide to forget about the whole endeavor.

In the United States, you can download a form off the internet to sign your child up for the Boy’s or Girl’s Scouts.  You can even send $25 to the NRA if you choose to belong to their organization.  But when it comes to joining or forming a union, the system is completely broken.

It doesn’t take much to see that there is a squeeze on the middle class.  Wages have not kept up with productivity.  The cost of filling up at the gas tank continues to rise.  Seniors are splitting pills in half because they can’t afford their full prescriptions. The price of a college education is looking more and more like a far off pipe dream for millions of people while our country slips below the rest of the industrialized world in terms of child poverty, infant mortality and insurance coverage.

Not allowing people the freedom to choose how they wish to further their economic ambitions is another hit on the middle and working class.  Those who defend the status quo not only are defending an authoritarian system of management controlled balloting but they are undermining the middle and working class in this nation.

The Employee Free Choice Act was finally passed by the House Committee on Education and Labor last Wednesday – the farthest labor law reform has traveled in over a generation.  This week, workers from across the United States will be telling their stories while their representatives are home on recess.  At the same time, employer groups are preparing to lobby against this bill and promise a vicious fight.  Dick Cheney already told a gathering of manufacturing executives last week that the President plans on supporting the status quo by opposing this bill.   He gave his remarks while stating that he was defending worker rights – to a rousing round of applause from the assembled executives. 

This fight will be tough, but it is winnable.  If you get the chance, please contact your member of Congress about this bill to either thank or urge them to support it.  In addition, you can write a Letter to the Editor of your local newspaper about the Employee Free Choice Act; because you can be sure the other side will be doing so too.

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