Unionists and allies demonstrate in 64 cities for the right to organize

Union activists and allies held events in 64 U.S. cities — including Portland and Eugene — Dec. 10 to mark International Human Rights Day and to start a political campaign to win back workers’ right to unionize.

Human Rights Day commemorates the day the International Declaration of Human Rights was signed in 1948 by members of the newly-formed United Nations. The rights in that declaration include a worker’s right to join a union and bargain collectively, a right union leaders contend is severely constrained in the United States.

“Workers face an incredible amount of intimidation, harassment and retaliation when they try to win a union,” said Alice Dale, head of Portland-based Service Employees Local 49, at a “Take Back the Right to Organize” campaign kickoff Dec. 10 in Portland that attracted more than 150 people. “And the losers are not just the workers, but the community.”

To better protect workers’ rights to choose a union if they want to, union supporters have introduced bills in the U.S. House and Senate that would rewrite the nation’s labor laws.

The bills would mandate union recognition if a majority of workers sign union authorization cards and would require binding arbitration if the two sides fail to reach agreement on a first contract.

If employers fired workers for union sympathies, the law would allow for speedy court injunctions to reinstate them, and would let workers whose rights were trampled sue for up to $20,000 per violation and damages equal to triple the lost wages. THAT might be enough to get employers to stay neutral in union campaigns, which is what the 1935 National Labor Relations Act requires in theory.

Unions know from polls and experience that where employers are truly neutral, the majority of workers usually prefer to have a union. That’s what happened at a number of nursing homes in Oregon this year, after the Service Employees succeeded in forging a political alliance with nursing home owners to win better public funding. When union organizers came calling, employers stayed neutral, and 10 out of 11 nursing homes voted to unionize in a first round of elections.

Nursing home worker Rhonda McCorvey said she didn’t think twice when the union came to her about organizing. “You can’t go wrong with a union,” she told participants.

But many workers never get the choice, like Michael Warren, a St. Helens school bus driver working for First Student, Inc., who told the audience he was fired after managers found out he was a ringleader in a campaign to unionize with the Laborers Union. Warren said the campaign sputtered after the company brought in anti-union specialists, who told workers about alleged corruption in the union’s highest ranks.

Next to testify was Roger Olson, a union supporter at Boydstun Metal Works in Portland. Olson’s account of facing repeated discrimination at work for his outspoken support of a failed union drive drew a standing ovation at the event. “I’ve survived four write-ups, two last-chance agreements, suspensions and threats. I’ve been pulled out of my worksite to keep me from talking to co-workers.” After the union failed to win a majority in its third attempt, Olson says he asked to meet with company owner Rob Boydstun. “He hurled insults at me and told me he’d learned a lot during the campaign,” Olson said, “and there would never be a union at Boydstun as long as he’s owner.”

In Eugene, organizers reported 300 people turned up at a Right to Organize event at a Wal-Mart store on West 11th. There they leafletted, rallied, and picketed for about two hours, to call attention to Wal-Mart’s fanatically anti-union record. Wal-Mart’s violations of workers’ rights to organize are so comprehensive that no Wal-Mart employees in the United States has ever succeeded in unionizing, though the company is the nation’s largest private-sector employer.

“If you don’t think people need to organize, take a walk through your local Wal-Mart,” Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner said at the Portland event.

Gardner was one of a handful of elected officials to show up. Nesbitt said the union movement is increasingly insisting that politicians stand up for workers’ rights if they want labor to continue to stand up for them at election time. But they’ll need to keep hearing that message from union members, Nesbitt said, and union leaders will have to start communicating to members how much of a struggle it is for non-union workers to organize.

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