| July 4, 2008 Volume 109 Number 13
Think it’s easy to form a union? Better think again
By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Have you seen the ads? Center for Union Facts, a business-funded anti-union group, has been running a pair of television ads in Oregon and several other states. One uses humor, the other sarcasm, but their key message is that “union bosses” are trying to change federal law to force people to join unions without a secret ballot election.
The ads are running in states that have competitive U.S. Senate races this year, because the fate of the bill the group opposes is in the hands of the Senate. It’s called the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). It’s a labor law reform that would make it easier for workers to join a union and get a union contract. It passed the U.S. House by a wide margin last year, and a majority of U.S. senators support the bill. But President Bush says he will veto it if it ever reaches his desk. Republicans led a filibuster when EFCA came to the floor of the Senate. It takes 60 votes to end a filibuster, and there weren’t enough votes to do it. Oregon Republican Gordon Smith voted on the side to kill the Employee Free Choice Act.
Federal law gives workers the right to join a union. If you think workers have an easy time exercising that right, you’d be wrong.
Some employers voluntarily sign union contracts in order to get skilled union trades workers. But in most workplaces, employers turn workplaces into war zones when union organizers appear.
Consider the case of Rogue Valley Door, in Grants Pass. It is a privately-owned maker of wooden doors, with around 250 production employees.
Ken Smith is a laborer there. When he saw his wife, who works at Safeway, defended by her union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, he decided he wanted a union too, and in October asked his wife’s union rep for advice. He was given a number for the United Steelworkers (USW), and he talked to organizer Pete Passarelli, based out of Auburn, Washington.
Passarelli and Albany Steelworkers leader Ron Rodgers met with Smith and other Rogue Valley Door workers to tell them what it would take to get a union. They’d have to form a committee, and get a majority of their co-workers to sign union authorization cards, then request a government-run election, and get a majority vote in the election.
In late November, Passarelli, Rodgers and several others stood outside the plant gate during the afternoon shift change and handed out fliers announcing a union meeting that night. About 25 workers showed up at at a nearby pizza joint. The next night, about 30 came. Pro-union workers formed an organizing committee.
But company owner John Dunkin was also handed the union flier that first day. And he didn’t want employees to have a union. Right away, management hit back hard to stop the campaign.
The union had no contact list of workers. Union staff weren’t allowed on the property. Only Rogue Valley workers themselves would be able to talk to other workers about joining the union. And managers put a chill on that.
In front of workers, managers removed pro-union materials from the break room. The employee bulletin boards were covered in glass and locked.
Several company-wide meetings were held at which employees were shown anti-union videos.
Managers announced a new work rule: Employees were forbidden to talk about the union. They could speak against the union, and they could speak about other things unrelated to work, but pro-union talk to co-workers was prohibited or limited to lunch breaks. Two employees were given written warnings for breaking the rule.
Rogue Valley Door, like most non-union employers, lacks a formal pay scale. Pay, work assignments, promotions, even continued employment, depend on managers’ good will. Open support of the union campaign would not endear workers to management. So the union campaign depended on workers’ willingness to risk their own future in the company. And the union didn’t exactly look powerful; union staff couldn’t even come onto the property.
A handful of pro-union workers wore union T-shirts that said “United we bargain, divided we beg.”
Rogue Valley Door managers approached workers individually and asked them if they supported the union, and whether they knew which of their co-workers supported the union. Pro-union workers swallowed their pride and played dumb. Anti-union workers took the chance to get ahead and named names. It became harder for workers to trust each other. It became scarier for pro-union workers to appeal to co-workers to sign union cards.
Known pro-union workers were watched closely while they worked, followed when they left their work areas, even watched on their way to the bathroom to see if they talked with anyone. Managers monitored their conversations with co-workers.
With the housing downturn, support for the union looked even riskier. Fewer doors were being sold. Rogue Valley Door began laying workers off. Members of the union committee have no proof, but are convinced that known union supporters were laid off and terminated in much greater proportion than others.
And rumors circulated that Dunkin would close the plant if workers unionized.
By January, the campaign to collect union cards had largely dried up.
Some of what Rogue Valley Door did — interrogating and surveilling workers, prohibiting union talk while allowing other discussions, disciplining union supporters for talking about the union — violated federal labor law. The law forbids employers to “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees” who are exercising their rights to “form, join, or assist labor organizations.” The union filed charges, and the National Labor Relations Board investigated. The federal agency issued a formal complaint May 30, naming the company owner and 12 managers. A federal administrative law judge is scheduled to hear the case the week of Aug. 5-9 in Medford.
The judge may rule that Rogue Valley Door broke the law, but the law doesn’t provide for any penalty or fines. At most, the judge can order the company to post a notice spelling out employees’ rights, and promising not to violate those rights again. The union hopes such a notice will embolden workers and revive the card-signing drive. But the notice can’t restore the momentum the campaign enjoyed when it began, or undo the fear and distrust sown by the management crackdown.
Any union organizer in America will tell you that what workers experienced at Rogue Valley Door was typical, and followed a cookie-cutter union avoidance script advised by anti-union consultants. Union-busting has become a multi-million-dollar industry in the United States, with firms hired by employers to provide training for supervisors and managers, legal matters, and other services.
In some kinds of workplaces, employer conduct makes organizing a union next to impossible. Wal-Mart is a good example, where no employees in the country have succeeded in forming a union, despite their supposed legal right to do so.
Jeanie Carpenter, a union organizer with Communications Workers of America Local 7901, says six times a year she gets a call from a worker at a nonunion call center.
“There’s nothing I can do for them,” Carpenter said. “I hear their story and tell them it’s impossible. They’re too closely monitored. Union campaigns take months, and usually, the pro-union committee crumbles under the stress.”
The non-profit group American Rights at Work commissioned a study of employer behavior during union campaigns. The study, published December 2005, found that 91 percent of employers forced employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with their supervisors; 49 percent threatened to close the worksite if workers formed a union; and 30 percent fired pro-union workers. In 2007, NLRB involvement resulted in 2,456 workers being offered reinstatement and back pay after being fired for union activity. Because of the difficulties in proving employer motive, the number fired for union activity is likely higher than the number reinstated.
The Employee Free Choice Act is intended to stop these abuses. The bill would provide for fines of up to $20,000 per violation against employers who willfully or repeatedly violate employees’ rights during an organizing campaign, and triple back pay awards to workers who are fired for supporting a union drive. It would require the NLRB to seek a federal court injunction against an employer that discharges or discriminates against pro-union employees or otherwise tramples on employee rights during an organizing drive, and authorize the courts to grant temporary restraining orders in such cases. Finally, workers could unionize simply when a majority signed union cards over the course of a year. That process, which used to be termed “card check,” is coming to be called “majority signup” among union organizers. Employers can legally recognize unions via majority signup under current law, but aren’t required to do so. The Employee Free Choice would require them to.
That’s the part of the law that union opponents are focusing on. Center for Union Facts, creator of the anti-union ads, says nothing about the mountains of cases in which employers intimidate union supporters, but claims to be concerned that majority sign-up will lead to unions intimidating workers into signing cards.
The Employee Free Choice Act would replace the employer-dominated election process with a majority sign-up process that gives unions the initiative. Which workers signed or didn’t sign the cards would still be secret from the employers who have so much power in the lives of workers like Ken Smith. But the union campaign would know which workers had signed cards. In that sense, the “secret ballot” might be lost, but workers’ effective right to unionize would be regained.
Last month, the national AFL-CIO announced a “million-member mobilization” in support of the Employee Free Choice Act. The federation has set up a Web site, www.freechoiceact.org, and wants to get a million signatures on an online petition in support of the law.
Organized labor is going to put just about everything it’s got into electing politicians who support the law this November, and passing it when it comes up again in Congress next year.
© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.