Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

December 19, 1997

A MAJOR OBSTACLE facing labor unions in organizing campaigns is the lack of swift and sure punishment for employers who violate federal law by firing workers who try to form a union.

It's been nearly 20 years -- during the presidency of Democrat Jimmy Carter -- since the labor movement has undertaken a lobbying campaign to amend the National Labor Relations Act to provide for that swift and sure punishment.

The need for putting teeth into the NLRA was explained recently by Dave Plant, directing business representative of Portland-based Machinists District Council 24. In a report to members of District 24's affiliated local unions, Plant delivered the following commentary:

"Over 60 years ago, during the depths of the Great Depression, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act. This legislation, also known as the Wagner Act, gave workers the right to form labor unions to collectively bargain with their employers over wages, hours, and working conditions. With unemployment levels that had reached over 30 percent, the political leadership of the United States recognized that, if the capitalist system were to be saved from complete collapse, it was necessary, for the mutual benefit of business and workers, to have an orderly process for resolving their differences. Otherwise, the politicians and business leaders feared, there might be a revolution by the workers.

Since 1935, it has been illegal for an employer to discriminate against workers for trying to organize a union. Nevertheless, many if not most, employers vigorously fight any attempt of their workers to organize. Many are willing to flagrantly violate the law by firing the leaders of an organizing campaign. Companies, and the labor consultants that advise them, know that they can often stop an organizing campaign dead in its tracks by firing the union's key supporters. They also know that the most severe penalty that can be imposed on them for violating the law amounts to a slap on the wrist. If the union can prove an employee was fired for union activity, at most the employer will be required to pay him back pay. All too many employers are willing to take this small risk to kill a union organizing drive.

The willingness of employers to flout the law was brought home to us once again recently. Several weeks ago, an automotive technician at a local dealership called me to talk about organizing his shop. I helped set up a meeting for him and some of his co-workers with District Organizer Bob Petroff. After the meeting, most of the nine mechanics signed a petition authorizing the Machinists Union to represent them.

One morning several days later, the manager talked with the technician who had originally called me about the factory training school the company was sending him to that evening. The manager gave no indication that anything was wrong with his job performance. But sometime later that day one of the technicians who had not signed the authorization petition apparently told management who was leading the organizing effort in the shop. That same evening the technician who initiated the organizing campaign was fired. The next work day, his close friend, another activist, was fired when he returned from training at the factory school the employer had sent him to.

We have filed a petition with the NLRB for a representation election at the dealership. We will also file an unfair labor practice charge against the employer for firing two employees just for exercising their legal right to seek union representation. If we are lucky, we will be able to win the election and get the two technicians their jobs back.

I would say that such tactics should be against the law–except that they are already against the law, a law that has been on the books for over 60 years.

What is needed is a law with some teeth in it. Employers who willfully violate the rights of workers should suffer a real penalty. Otherwise, they will continue to treat the right of workers to organize as a joke."

RUSSELL C. FARRELL of Portland, honored last summer by selection to Labor's Hall of Fame, died of cancer at age 86 on Nov. 27.

He was named to the Labor Hall of Fame by the sponsoring Northwest Oregon Labor Retirees Council.

A labor poet, songwriter and folk singer, Farrell published two books of labor songs, poetry and prose titled "Yesterday is Hardly Gone" and "Too Soon to Close the Door."

In his working career, Farrell belonged to the Woodworkers, Laborers, Electrical Workers Local 125 and Carpenters and Shipwrights 1020.

HE WAS ACTIVE in the Democratic Party and in grass-roots labor, peace, environmental and anti-sales tax organizations.

Farrell was born Aug. 21, 1911 in Belle Creek, Minn. He and his wife Lorine were married in 1939. They moved to Portland in the 1960s after living for 26 years in Washington's Olympic Peninsula area.

Survivors include his wife; three daughters, Sharon of Portland, Sandi McGarvie of Joyce, Wash., and Jerri Shaw of Carver; a son, James, of Scappoose; a sister, Eleanor Gielow of Red Wing, Minn.; 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

He was cremated, with arrangements handled by Omega Cremation & Burial Service.

Contributions in his memory can be made to the Labor History Project in care of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council at 1125 SE Madison St., Portland 97214.

ALTHOUGH UNEMPLOYMENT in the United States, at less than 5 percent, is the lowest in a quarter-century, there are many Americans who can't get a hand-hold on the ladder to economic success.

This was pointed out by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D. C., in a report written by labor economist Jered Bernstein.

"If workers with a similar labor market profile to welfare recipients are already facing difficulty finding work, our expectations regarding the success of welfare to work might be somewhat tempered. As one example, note that while overall unemployment has averaged 5.2 percent over the past year, unemployment among young African-American women (ages 15 to 25) with a high school diploma was 19.7 percent."

COLUMNIST BOB HERBERT of the New York Times called attention to the EPI report and also said: "Fifty percent of the women who have been on welfare for an extended period of time do not even have high school diplomas. To throw them and their children off welfare while pretending that their job prospects are anything but bleak is irresponsible, cruel and potentially tragic."

Herbert went on to comment: "The report touches on a point that is fully understood by economists and politicians but not widely known by the general public -- that it is national policy to restrain growth and keep unemployment artificially high. 'Fearing inflation, the Federal Reserve Board has used a monetary policy to keep unemployment rates unnecessarily high,' the report says, 'thus dampening potential wage growth among those who benefit most from tight labor markets: low-wage earners.'

"The interests of the monied classes will trump the interests of the lower classes every time... Let unemployment slip a little further, or wages climb just a little higher, and watch how quickly (Alan) Mr. Greenspan, the powerful chairman of the Federal Reserve, raises interest rates to slow the economy and halt that modest improvement in the quality of life for ordinary working Americans. Watch how eagerly he slams the door on the employment opportunities of those men and women, especially the poor and the young, who are looking for work.

"The game is rigged against those at the bottom, and hardly anyone talks honestly about it..."


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