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JetBlue, Corporate Waste and Update on the Employee Free Choice Act

Nikkia Parish, a dancer with the Washington Ballet, no longer has a job after trying to form a union.

JetBlue chairman, CEO and founder David Neeleman is getting lots of kudos for his multiple mea culpas after JetBlue stranded passengers for hours in planes sitting on icy Northeast tarmacs.

But let’s take a closer look at the other Neeleman. The vitriolically anti-union Neeleman who has prevented JetBlue staff from forming unions—an attitude all too many corporations take today, encouraged by the nation’s weak labor laws. In a San Francisco Chronicle article a few years ago, Neeleman explains why he thinks unions are not needed for companies such as his.

Q: Would you resist a labor-organizing effort at JetBlue?

A: We would. I love American history, and I’ve studied it. I understand we had a big need for unions in this country. You basically had unscrupulous people who were building companies on the backs of their people without giving them health care and without giving them other benefits. They made them take on hazardous jobs and work long hours.

We aren’t one of those companies. We don’t do that to our people.

We don’t want a third party who may or may not have our best interests in mind or our crew members’ best interests in mind because they may be serving a union of one of our competitors. They are trying to equalize us and take away our competitive advantage.

That “competitive advantage” is now costing JetBlue and its shareholders $10 million in refunds to passengers on canceled flights and $16 million worth of vouchers to delayed passengers for future travel.

Corporate bosses throw around millions of dollars of shareholder money all the time: on executive pay and perks or to make up for disasters that could have been prevented if they had adequately compensated employees and ensured sufficient staffing—and by paying union busters to keep employees from joining a union.

But too many employers aren’t willing to put any money into salaries and decent health care and retirement for the workers who make their operations profitable.

As Paul wrote in this space last week, we in the union movement held a week of action across the nation in recent days to thank members of Congress for their support for the Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 800) and to urge those who have not signed on, to do so. The Employee Free Choice Act would level the playing field that now favors employers in a management-controlled election process that provides plenty of time for employers to intimidate and harass workers who want to join a union.

In more than 100 cities, workers took part in conferences, roundtables, rallies and other gatherings, connecting with more than 130 members of Congress. On March 1, the U.S. House will vote on the Employee Free Choice Act, which now has 233 co-sponsors.

Here are some highlights from recent worker events:

  • At a forum in Pittsburgh, Bob Boyle, a member of the United Steelworkers, described how he lost his job trying to form a union at Osterling’s Sandblasting and Painting Co. Boyle and the other painters had been forced to pay for their own respirators to do their work safely. To discourage them from forming a union, the company threatened to sell the operation and eliminate the workforce. After the union election, in which a majority voted against the union, Boyle, who had missed four days of work in 17 years, was fired. His firing, coupled with the serious and pervasive evidence of intimidation and abuse by the employer, caused the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to rule that no fair and free election could be conducted. The workers now have a union—a year later. 
  • In Burlington, Vt., Sen. Bernie Sanders joined with a bipartisan group of state and local elected officials and religious leaders in a forum sponsored by the Vermont Workers’ Center and the Vermont Living Wage Campaign. The forum focused on the poverty-level wages many workers receive and the loss of good jobs being exported overseas. One worker, employed by a non-profit agency in Burlington, said 80 percent of his co-workers signed authorization cards to join a union in October 2006 but the employer refuses to recognize the workers’ choice of a union to represent them. Had the Employee Free Choice Act been law, he says, he and his co-workers would now have a union. 
  • In Philadelphia, three Democratic members of Congress—Bob Brady, Chaka Fattah and Allyson Schwartz—heard from workers firsthand about why the Employee Free Choice Act is so important to them. Nearly 80 activists, representing almost a dozen unions attended the forum where Rosalind Spigel, executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, presented testimony from Comcast workers in Levittown who are preparing to vote on forming a union next month after a vicious anti-union campaign by the employer. 
  • On Feb. 21, the North Dakota Senate and House caucuses (in joint session) presented Sen. Byron Dorgan with a resolution supporting passage of the Employee Freedom of Choice Act. The resolution is among many now being passed by local governments across the nation.  
  • In New York City, three workers at a roundtable with five members of Congress (Yvette Clarke, Gregory Meeks, Anthony Weiner, Nydia Velázquez and Jerold Nadler) described how employers intimidated and retaliated against them when they tried to form a union. Amy Cimini, a graduate assistant at New York University (NYU), told how the graduate workers voted to join Graduate Student Organizing Committee (GSOC)/UAW Local 2110 in 2000 and negotiated a four-year contract with the university. That contract expired last August, and the university refused to negotiate a new one and ceased recognizing the union.
  • The university’s actions came after the Bush administration’s NLRB in 2004 abolished federal labor law protections for graduate employees by reversing an NLRB ruling made during the Clinton administration. Nothing in the NLRB ruling prevents NYU or any other university from voluntarily recognizing a graduate assistants’ union. (The AFL-CIO and the UAW have just filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations, alleging that the 2004 decision violates workers' rights to the freedom of association.)

  • Rep. John Yarmuth joined 260 union members in Louisville, Ky., who were rallying in favor of the bill. Yarmuth, one of 233 co-sponsors of the legislation, says it is one of his top priorities:
    • Even as their productivity has risen, the American worker has seen a drop in wages over the last six years. This legislation reinforces the rights of workers to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and working conditions, and it is a major victory for working men and women across the country. This will give a lot of people a real chance to progress economically. Workers told Yarmuth and the crowd what really happens to workers who try to form unions.

By next week, we’ll be able to report on the House vote. And then, it’s on to the Senate — where the going will be more difficult but worth the fight.

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