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Labor Unions - Page One

“Lay's strategy of bringing influential public figures into the company's fold was resisted by some of
the company's own executives, who feared it could backfire and lead to public embarrassment.” – WSJ

Unions Come to North Carolina

Duke Energy Employee Advocate - - September 4, 2001

Ted Reed (The Charlotte Observer) reports that the United Steelworkers of America now represents employees in Laurinburg, North Carolina. It took 12 tries for the union to get into the Pilkington glass plant. But persistence is what it takes to get what you want.

Companies have migrated to the South from the North and Midwest to escape labor unions. But the inevitable happened. The labor unions followed the industries to the South.

Some enlightened employers work with the Carolina’s unions to created a smooth operating partnership. Other resist and bring problems upon themselves. There are still those who want senior management to get everything and the employees to get as little as possible.

Right-to-work (or right-to-be-victimized) laws do make unionization more difficult to obtain in the South. But these laws can change.

“Jimmy Morton, who has worked at the plant since it opened and has been active in all 12 campaigns, said many of the votes were close. ‘We always had an overwhelming number of signature cards (seeking an election), but when it came time to vote, the company would use scare tactics at the end,’ he said.”

The newly unionized employees gained a company-funded pension plan, an union grievance process, and an oversight committee. The committee is staffed with half managers and half union members.

Some people are losing the “mill-hill anti-union mentality.” “Jeff Cooper, who voted against the union all 12 times but is now an active member. ‘The union today is the people I know, the people I have been working with, the people I trust,’ Cooper said.”

Bush Sucks Up to Unions

Duke Energy Employee Advocate - - September 4, 2001

The Associated Press has reported that G. W. Bush was courting unions on Labor Day. How touching. This ploy is about as transparent as they come!

Bush’s handlers have concluded that he should be seen as “showing concern” for Americans facing difficult financial times. Bush has about as much empathy for the average union member or any working American, for that matter, as a spider has for the fly that he is about to suck the blood out of.

Some are easily fooled, but not everyone. Some union members held sign denouncing Bush for hurting Social Security. Some had ``We're being used'' and ``This is divide and conquer'' signs.

Union Poll

Associated Press - By WILL LESTER - August 31, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Americans' sympathy in labor disputes has tilted more strongly toward unions instead of companies in the past couple of years, according to an Associated Press poll taken at a time of job layoffs and economic uncertainty.

As Labor Day approaches, the public generally sides with the unions in disputes by 2 to 1, according to the poll conducted for the AP by ICR of Media, Pa. Respondents favored unions by a much smaller margin - fewer than 10 percentage points - two years ago when the economy was booming.

"I used to feel sorry for the companies because I thought a lot of the unions were asking too much," said Ted Sklany, a retired lab technician in Charlottesville, Va. "But the bottom line is that workers are usually getting the short end of the stick."

His support can depend on the issues in question, but he said, "If a union is striking for better benefits, I'm for them."

Young adults were more likely to side with unions than were people older than 65, and those in the Northeast and Midwest were more likely than people in the South and West. Republicans were split, Democrats sided with unions 3 to 1 and independents backed unions 2 to 1.

Besides any effects of the slumping economy, the tilt toward unions comes when organized labor is in more of an underdog role with a Republican in the White House.

General approval for unions runs nearly 3 to 1, roughly the same as in recent years but higher than 20 years ago, when it was less than 2 to 1.

Workers who have gone on strike in recent years include nurses at hospitals from Massachusetts to Minnesota, pilots at Comair, baggage handlers at United Airlines in Denver and workers at Verizon. But union membership is not on the rise.

The percentage of American workers belonging to unions fell last year to 13.5 percent, the lowest in six decades, according to the Labor Department. Union officials have blamed a decline in heavily unionized industries, accompanied by job growth in nonunion parts of the economy.

Union jobs in the private sector have declined in the fast-changing economy.

In the new poll, four in 10 people said unions are at about the right strength, twice the number who think they are too strong.

The poll of 1,010 people was taken from Aug.22 through Sunday and had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points…

Union Advantage - David Kusnet - August 25, 2001

The Case for Organized Labor and Democracy in the Workplace

If the great pamphleteer Tom Paine were alive and agitating today, chances are he'd be barnstorming on behalf of workers who have suffered the same experience that he endured before immigrating to America: being fired for trying to organize a union.

While Paine is best remembered for inspiring American revolutionaries, he was a working class hero in his native England, where he once worked as an "exciseman," or traveling tax-collector and smuggler-catcher. When his co-workers complained they were underpaid, he organized them, took their case to Parliament, and was fired for his troubles.

Soon afterwards, Paine moved to North America, where his pamphlets, "Common Sense" and "The Crisis," helped build support for a war of independence to replace monarchy with democracy. King George, the revolutionaries declared, had denied Americans the rights Englishmen had enjoyed since the Magna Charta.

On Labor Day 2001, a modern-day Paine would argue for reviving, modernizing, and enforcing a Depression-era law that once was hailed as "Labor's Magna Charta." The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 guarantees working Americans the right to organize without fear of reprisal and to bargain with their employers for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Until it was weakened in 1947 and systematically flouted by employers since the 1970's, this law made it public policy to encourage the growth of unions to lift living standards and serve as counterweights to corporate power.

For Paine's spiritual descendants, the time is right to make the case for restoring the nation's earlier commitment to collective bargaining, a system that encourages a small measure of democracy in the workplace.

Many of the arguments for protecting workers' rights to organize that were made in the depths of the Depression still ring true today. Now as then, unions are essential because they raise wages, reduce economic inequalities, and help individual employees redress grievances against powerful employers.

Moreover, now that Americans are increasingly nervous about the churning new economy, the nation can benefit from many other roles that unions have played. Unions are sources of education and training, providers of portable health and pension benefits, referral services matching skilled workers with job opportunities, and partners for responsible employers -- such as Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the Kaiser Permanente hospitals and health plans -- that are seeking to provide quality to their consumers.

The Union Advantage

Today's Tom Paine would point to how, over the past half century, unions helped to build a more prosperous, egalitarian, and inclusive America -- and how the deunionization of America has coincided with increasing inequality and stagnating living standards.

The case is clear:

Thanks in large measure to a labor movement that reached a high-watermark of 35 percent of the entire workforce by the middle of the 1950's, American family incomes grew by an average of 2.4 percent to 3 percent a year from 1947 through 1973, with every sector of society seeing its incomes roughly double. Then, unions started their steady decline to their present position: 16 percent of the entire workforce and scarcely 10 percent of private sector workers. Meanwhile, real wages (average hourly pay, adjusted for inflation) stagnated, with most families maintaining their living standards by having husbands, wives, and even teen-age children working longer hours. When real wages finally increased at the end of the 1990's, when a booming economy approached full employment, Congress increased the minimum wage, and a feistier labor movement put the problem of wage stagnation on America's agenda.

Even now, unions help workers raise their wages and improve their benefit package. By the end of the 1990's, union members earned 32 percent more than unrepresented workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. Department of Labor. Moreover, the "union advantage" was even greater for workers who are vulnerable to discrimination. Union women earned 39 percent more than their non-union counterparts, and the union premium was 54 percent for Latino workers and 45 percent for African Americans. Union members are also more likely to have health courage and pension plans. And, from the longstanding apprenticeship programs in the building trades to innovative efforts to help telecommunications workers learn how to use new technologies, unions are second only to the military as a source of job training and skill development.

Embattled Workplaces

Before more workers -- and the entire nation -- can benefit from what unions can do, more workers need to be able to form and join unions. But, when workers in the private sector try to form unions, companies often go ballistic, resorting to their ultimate weapons of terminating union supporters or threatening to close down the entire workplace, possibly moving it to Mexico.

The widespread use of these tactics has been documented in a growing bookshelf of studies by academic observers.

Harvard Law Professor Paul Weiler estimates that one in 20 union supporters -- an average of approximately 10,000 workers a year -- are fired by their employers during union organizing campaigns.

Similarly, in a study of 400 elections on union representation conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, Dr. Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University found that 50 percent of the employers threatened to close the office or plant and 32 percent fired workers who actively supported the union.

These actions are in violation of the NLRA's provisions prohibiting employers from firing, harassing, or threatening employers who seek to organize unions. But, as the journalist Michael Kinsley once said of campaign finance, when it comes to employer opposition to workers' organizing efforts, the real scandal is not what is illegal but rather what is legal.

Because of amendments to the NLRA in 1946, spotty enforcement by over-burdened federal officials, and slick tactics by the lawyers, publicists, and employee relations specialists who earn an estimated $300 million a year advising employers how to defeat organizing drives, union-bashing tactics have become commonplace.

All in all, according to Bronfenbrenner, 80 percent of employers who face employee organizing efforts hire consultants to help them conduct anti-union campaigns. And their tactics make a mockery of the NLRA's promise that workers are guaranteed "the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection."

Brofenbrenner found another, uglier reality. In addition to the 32 percent of employers who break the law by firing pro-union workers and the 50 percent who skirt the law by threatening to close down the workplace, others use legal but hardball tactics.

  • Ninety-one percent of employers facing organizing efforts force employees to attend anti-union meetings;

  • Seventy-seven percent distribute anti-union leaflets;

  • And 58 percent show anti-union videos.

In addition to these efforts, employers can often also get away with these tactics:

  • Firing employees who refuse to attend the anti-union meetings or who insist on asking embarrassing questions;

  • Excluding known union supporters from these meetings;

  • And barring union representatives from the workplaces during the weeks before the federally supervised elections where workers decide whether to be represented by a union.

These conditions resemble sham elections in totalitarian countries. In fact, they violate international conventions that the United States has signed protecting freedom of association - a right that's a close cousin to the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of free speech and freedom of assembly. According to a recent study by the international watchdog group, Human Rights Watch: "Workers' freedom of association is under sustained attack in the United States, and the government is often failing in its responsibility under international human rights standards to deter such attacks and protect workers' rights."

The Forgotten Wagner Act

All this is a far cry from the original vision of the National Labor Relations Act, which saw unions as indispensable institutions in an industrialized democracy. Introduced by Senator Robert F. Wagner (thus, the NLRA is frequently called "The Wagner Act"), a liberal Democrat from New York, and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the NLRA reflected the era's egalitarian economic philosophy. The Depression had been caused by corporate excesses, the New Dealers believed, and by the lack of consumer demand resulting from low wages. Moreover, ordinary citizens were powerless to right these wrongs unless they joined together. Thus, unions were desirable because they offered workers a way to resist corporate abuses, raise their wages, and restore their rightful role in the nation's economic, social, and political life.

Today's Tom Paine might argue that such organizing is an essential element not only of a free society but of any truly free market economy, as it ensures that the price of products on the shelf reflects their true cost of manufacture, including the cost of just working conditions. He might cite the forthright legislative "findings" that precede the provisions of the NLRA, which read like a populist treatise about the causes and consequences of economic inequality and -- remarkably -- are still the law of the land.

Thus, the law begins by blaming hostile employers for labor unrest, declaring: "The denial by some employers of the right of employees to organize and the refusal by some employers to accept the procedure of collective bargaining lead to strikes and other forms of industrial strife."

The law goes on contend that individual workers don't have the power to improve their conditions and to present collective action as a cure for the lack of mass purchasing power that produced the Depression: "The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association ... tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions by suppressing wage rates."

Because its backers believed in the desirability of unions and collective bargaining, the NLRA was based on the principle that workers should decide whether to form organizations of their own without their employers being involved. The law created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to administer a simple democratic procedure for workers to decide whether to be represented by a union. Workers would sign cards authorizing a union to represent them. The NLRB would verify the validity of these cards. If a majority of the employees at a workplace expressed their support, the NLRB would "certify" the union as their "exclusive representative." If there were a legitimate question about whether the majority of workers wanted union representation, the NLRB would conduct an election where the employees would choose between the union and "no representative."

Employers were expected to stay out of this process. Because employers control their employees' livelihoods, the New Dealers believed that any efforts on their part to discourage workers from forming unions would have the effect of coercing the employees. This concern even trumped traditional considerations of free speech, since employer involvement in the process could intimidate, not inform, the employees. This view was expressed in a 1941 decision by the legendary civil libertarian, Judge Learned Hand: "Language may serve to enlighten a hearer ... but the light it sheds will in some degree be clouded if the hearer has no power ... What to an outsider will be no more than the vigorous presentation of a conviction, to an employee may be the manifestation of a determination which is not safe to thwart."

With federal law supporting them, workers organized the automobile, steel, rubber, and garment industries, with union membership increasing from less than four million in 1935 to almost 11 million on the eve of World War II. But the post-war years brought a wave of strikes, a Republican resurgence, and a corporate drive to limit labor's rights. In 1947, Congress overrode a veto by President Truman and enacted amendments to the NLRA introduced by two conservative Republicans, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio and Representative Fred Hartley of New Jersey, that weakened unions in many ways. Now, employers would be allowed to conduct campaigns against union representation as long as there is "no threat of reprisal or promise of benefit."

With a green light from federal law, companies began to resist their employees' efforts at organizing. By the late 1970's, with the nation's economy mired in inflation and stagnation and American companies facing international competition, organizing campaigns resembled trench warfare between employers and employees more than the deliberative process envisioned by the New Dealers who drafted the NLRA. Workers who tried to form unions often found their workplaces had become hostile environments, with managers making thinly veiled threats of shutdowns, layoffs, or pay cuts. That was the conclusion of the bipartisan Commission on the Future of Labor Management Relations, which was appointed by President Bill Clinton and chaired by John Dunlop, who had served as Secretary of Labor under President Gerald Ford. The panel reported in 1994: "The United States is the only major democratic country in which the choice of whether or not workers are to be represented by a union is subject to such a confrontational process."

Workers who try to organize unions often find that their jobs become a living hell. This puts the lie to the glib generalization that union membership has declined because workers no longer want to join unions. In other words, workers who try to organize unions often find that their jobs become a living hell. This puts the lie to the glib generalization, promoted by conservative academics, corporate spokespeople, and elite editorialists that union membership has declined because workers no longer want to join unions. In fact, while Americans make an individual decision to join organizations such as the NRA, the PTA, or the AAA, people join unions as part of an entire workforce, usually after a federally supervised election, and often after their employers have tried to frighten them out of it. And there are two important indications that, given a less intimidating process, many more working Americans would choose to join unions.

First, there's the large number of teachers, state and local government employees, and other public sector workers who belong to unions. Educators, librarians, and highway engineers are hardly hotheads, but they are covered by state or local labor relations policies, and, in most parts of the country, their employers don't discourage them from organizing.

Second, there is the survey of working Americans conducted for the Dunlop Commission in 1994. The study found that, even without any organizing efforts in their workplaces, about one-third of non-union private sector workers would vote for a union if given the chance. If their preferences prevailed, union density in the private sector would increase to 44 percent -- five times the current level and the highest in history.

Restoring the Right to Organize

So how to offer these workers the opportunity to make a choice that should be their birthright as Americans? There's no shortage of ideas for reforming labor law, including: toughening penalties against employers who fire or harass union supporters; encouraging companies to recognize unions after a majority of workers have signed authorization cards; and making organizing easier for workers whose wages and working conditions are determined by large companies that contract with their nominal employers, such as building service workers employed by janitorial firms hired by major building owners.

Many of these ideas were endorsed by the Dunlop Commission in 1994. Still others were part of a labor law reform proposal supported by President Jimmy Carter in the late '70s but stymied by the familiar coalition of conservative Republicans and southern Democrats. At neither time was there a national movement for restoring the right to organize capable of energizing progressive Democrats and winning over moderate Republicans and border-state Democrats.

Even if progressive Democrats win the White House in 2004 and sweep both houses of Congress, there will still be a need for a national sense of urgency, similar to the worker organizing, intellectual ferment, and governmental innovation that produced the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. Once again, if workers start organizing across the economy, responsible business leaders may seek new ways to stabilize labor relations. Once again, opinion-makers may call attention to problems that unions can help solve, such as lagging purchasing power, increasing inequality, and the growing sense that faulty management policies are preventing many employees from doing their best work. And, once again, public policymakers may define larger public purposes that would be served by restoring the right to organize, such as lifting the working poor into the middle class, serving as a source of skill-development and stability in churning industries like high-tech, and creating a mechanism where workers can offer ideas for improving the quality of the products they make and the services they provide.

But, first, it will take a sense of outrage at how workers are fired, harassed, or intimidated simply for joining together to speak their minds. And that will take today's Tom Paines arguing that restoring the right to organize is simply "common sense."

Union Fight at Nissan Plant

Duke Energy Employee Advocate - - August 18, 2001

The United Automobile Workers union wants the employees of a Nissan plant to vote on unionization, according to The New York Times. This would be the first election at a foreign-owned auto plant in twelve years. Most of the plant’s workers have signed union cards.

A foreign-owned auto plant has never been organized by the U.A.W. The Times article states that these plants are “spread across the mostly non-union South.” These plants have been paying workers $45,000 to $100,000 a year to discourage union organization. But employees have other concerns, such as: safety, benefits, and a voice in matters that affect them.

A Nissan spokesperson said: "It's our policy to maintain open and productive relationships among all employees without the interference of a third party." Just where have we heard that one before? When two Duke plants voted to unionize, Mick Tuckman, Vice President of Nuclear Generation, said that he was “disappointed” because of the vote. He said that he wanted to continue to work together with employees, one on one, as he had in the past.

The problem is that there has never been any working with employees “one on one” or any other way. Duke Energy’s idea of employee negations is to hit them with a large hammer and say: “how did you like that?”

No feedback was sought from employees before the pension plan, early retirement benefits, and retirement health coverage benefits were wrecked. But each time a union threat appears, Duke claims to be “working with the employees.”

Duke’s game has worn a little thin. Too many promises have been made to employees that have been broken. How do you tell if a Duke spokesperson is lying? Check to see if his lips are moving.

Murder of Union Members at Coke Plant

Duke Energy Employee Advocate - - August 14, 2001

Reuters has issued a detailed report of union members being murdered at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Colombia. In some countries, large employers can get by with more aggressive tactics to “discourage” the unionization of their plants. Such methods have included: murder, kidnapping, torture, arson, threats, and harassment of union members. Union members have been attacked with firearms and even chainsaws!

Some employers are eternally searching for a cost effective way to deal with those pesky employees. If they are not wanting unions, they are wanting their pensions returned to them. Some in the United States have indicated that they want to do business in foreign countries because the laws are less restrictive.

We will be the first to agree that they have a point. In some foreign countries, when one hires “union busters,” they certainly get a lot more “bang for the buck”!

Reign of Terror at Colombian Coca-Cola Plant

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