AFL-CIO revs up 'Right to Organize' campaign

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Dan Isaacson discovered a morale problem when he accepted a job as a sales specialist at Circuit City in Springfield, Ore., in January 2003. The electronic retail giant had just eliminated sales commissions nationwide — and tossed out 4,000 of its top salespeople, who were considered overpaid. Those choosing to remain would be paid $9.50 to $10 an hour.

So when a union activist friend of Isaacson’s came to shop at the store and loudly told Isaacson “You guys ought to start a union here,” word spread quickly, and co-workers approached Isaacson, eager to sign up for the rumored union drive.

Isaacson ran the idea by another friend, a union leader in the Service Employees. “Sure, a union would be great,” he told Isaacson, “but if it’s something you want to do, expect to lose your job.”

In three days, Isaacson says, he and several others got three dozen co-workers to sign a union petition — about half the workforce at the store. But they hadn’t found a union to help them organize. Circuit City management found out about the drive on the third day, and two days after that, on July 9, Isaacson was suspended and then fired, ostensibly for having failed to report on his job application that he had once worked at Albertsons.

Believing that he’d been fired for wanting a union, on Aug. 5 he filed an unfair labor practice charge with Subregion 36 of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), guardians of the nation’s labor law for Oregon and Southwest Washington. It’s against federal labor law for an employer to fire a worker for supporting a union. It’s also extraordinarily common.

No one knows how many American workers are fired for union sympathies, but Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner studied union campaigns and found that hundreds of workers were fired in one in four of them.

“Employers have found a system that really works,” Bronfenbrenner said, “a combination of legal and illegal tactics where the result is employees are scared to speak their minds or act in concert with each other.”

Such routinely flouting by employers of workers’ rights is the reason the AFL-CIO has declared labor law will need to be reformed if workers are ever to be able to enjoy rights supposedly guaranteed by U.S. and international law.

Legislation — The Employee Free Choice Act — has been introduced in Congress. The legislation, which would allow workers to freely choose whether to form unions by card-check, currently has 82 House and 23 Senate co-sponsors.

As alleged in NLRB filings, Isaacson was the 46th person to have been fired for union activity in Subregion 36 in 2003; 14 other fired workers were named in other complaints over the next three months.

Workers fired for union sympathies often find it very difficult to prove that getting rid of a union supporter was the motive for termination.

But Isaacson had an ace in the hole that few other fired workers have — a friend of his had worked as a Circuit City manager, had left in disgust over the anti-union campaign, and agreed to testify about what had happened when managers learned Isaacson was fomenting a union drive.

Company headquarters was called, and a special union avoidance action team was flown to the store. Within a day of the union talk beginning, Isaacson recalls hearing yelling from behind closed doors where managers were meeting. They were being given a crash course in legal —and illegal methods of staying union-free. They learned, and later practiced, how to record employee conversations and interrogate workers about the union. And they discussed how to deal with Isaacson.

It didn’t take them long; they ran a background check and fired him on the pretext of the incomplete application. Isaacson said he’d been told at the time he applied that listing only the most recent jobs was sufficient.

With a cooperative manager revealing the inside strategy, the company was in effect, caught red-handed.

The company offered him a substantial monetary settlement to walk away, but he insisted he be given his job back, and on Nov. 14, he went back to work at Circuit City, closely watched by management, but having reasserted his rights.

Isaacson’s victory is rare but not unique. In 2001, the latest year for which such statistics are available, the NLRB managed to get offers of reinstatement to 1,256 workers fired in violation of their labor rights.

More common is the experience of Gresham school bus driver Krissy Hays. Hays had worked five years as a school bus driver in Gresham when members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 started talking to her co-workers at First Student, Inc. about unionizing. Hays says she liked her job, which paid $11.20 an hour, and since she has two kids in school, it worked well with her schedule. But when the union organizers came to pass out buttons at her workplace, she was interested in learning more.

“[The company] wouldn’t let the union on the property, so they had to hold the union meetings at restaurants. We met at Heidi’s and heard what the union had to say.”

“I wanted medical insurance, so I was for the union.”

Soon, Hays said, the company brought a man from the East Coast to preach the evils of unionism at a meeting all workers were required to attend. The guest speaker said at the outset that he wasn’t there to union-bash. At the end of his presentation, he asked for questions.

“You said you weren’t going to union bash, but that’s all you did,” Hays recalls saying. She was told to leave the meeting.

“A lot of people were scared to speak up,” Hays recalls.

It turned out their fears were warranted. She spoke up, and she was fired April 7, shortly after the union lost the election. The offenses cited for her firing: climbing over a chair in a crowded room during a mandatory anti-union meeting; sitting on the knee of a friend, an 80-year-old co-worker, in the break room while she filled out her time card; and making a photocopy of a disciplinary letter so her husband could read it before she signed.

Mary Lou Farrier, a co-worker of Hays who also supported the union, said three other pro-union workers were fired at the same time; other reasons were given in each case, but Farrier points out that more workers were fired within two weeks of the union election than had been fired in the previous five years.

When Hays took her case to the NLRB, the investigating agent said they couldn’t prove that it was her union sympathies that got her fired. At the unemployment office, on the other hand, an investigator heard both sides and sided with Hays.

Hays case is the norm. Few workers fired for exercising their rights know to fire charges with the NLRB. Few who do file charges ever get to prove their case like Isaacson. Most lick their wounds and move on.

Hays says she misses the kids and misses her job, but she can’t afford a lawyer to pursue the case further, so she’s decided to go back to school.

“It wasn’t fair that they got away with it,” Hays said.

“The labor law in this country is broken,” Bronfenbrenner said. “Employers find no sanction even if they violate the law in egregious ways.”

It’s this sense of injustice that drives the AFL-CIO to kick off a campaign Dec. 10 to declare that labor rights are human rights.

So, from Boston to Portland, activists around the country are getting ready to commemorate International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.

In Portland, the plan is for a potluck dinner Wednesday, Dec. 10, at Rose City Park Presbyterian Church at 1907 NE 45th (corner of Sandy Blvd.) Politicians who say they support workers’ rights are invited, and after the dinner, participants will discuss how to build a movement to win back workers’ rights.

Central Oregon union members and supporters will rally from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 6, at Bend’s Community Center, 1036 NE Fifth Street.

For more information about the Bend event, contact Michael Funke at 541-317-0252.