Reclaiming Our Right to Form Unions

Guest Commentary

Volume C, No. 6June, 2000

Last year the AFL-CIO launched “Seven Days in June” to increase public awareness of the “secret war” against workers who seek to join a union, and to lay the groundwork for badly needed labor law reform. This year “Seven Days in June” is scheduled for June xx-xx. In New York, a Union Square rally is set for June 14.

The article below explains the overwhelming odds workers face when they try to unionize, and the role public involvement can play in restoring the American freedom to form unions. It is excerpted from a speech made last year by Richard L. Trumka, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

An ugly war is going on in our nation’s workplaces, one that is largely hidden from public view. I’m referring to the war against hard-working Americans who want to gain a voice at work and a way to improve the future for their families, and who want to do so by exercising their right to form or join unions.

It’s a war against workers who believe – as does most of America – that unions have an important role to play in today’s society. It’s a war against workers who assume – as does most of America – that they are free to choose for themselves whether to join together with their co-workers for a voice on the job. It’s a war against workers who had no idea – like most of America doesn’t – that intimidation and interference by employers is such standard practice in today’s workplaces that the freedom to form a union doesn’t really exist after all.

Nearly half of all working Americans, from all walks of life, would vote to form a union tomorrow if they had the chance. It is easy to see why. Workers who join unions earn an average 32 percent more than unorganized workers. They are more likely to have health insurance paid by their employers, and nearly twice as likely to have guaranteed pension benefits. And they have what working Americans need most – a voice in the decisions that affect their work, their safety and their security.

But studies have shown that when workers attempt to organize unions, 91% of employers respond by forcing workers to attend hostile anti-union meetings, 79% direct supervisors to meet with employees individually to try to talk them out of it, and – in nearly a third of all organizing drives – one or more workers are illegally fired.

Every day, in workplaces throughout the country, employers are interfering in a decision that rightfully belongs to employees. Workers are subjected to a barrage of frightening and misleading anti-union propaganda. They are often humiliated, isolated and placed under surveillance. In many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, they are threatened with loss of pay or benefits or even their jobs.

Unfortunately, under our nation’s lopsided and outdated labor laws, many of these tactics are perfectly legal. But even when they’re not, the laws that were intended to protect the freedom to form unions are largely unenforceable – and the penalties for misconduct are too minuscule to act as a deterrent.

But the story doesn’t end there. When workers rise above the coercion and scare tactics and vote for union representation anyway, they face yet another uphill battle – trying to get their employers to recognize their union and negotiate a union contract. Quite simply, our legal system allows employers to stall and stonewall for years. And when all else fails, they can drag out the process with frivolous legal challenges in the hopes that workers will give up or change jobs before the appeals have been exhausted.

But most people in America don’t know what’s happening in our workplaces. Less than a third of the country is even aware that employers often try to intimidate employees who want a union by harassing and even firing them.

And let’s be clear. Americans fundamentally and unequivocally believe that workers should have the right to form a union. They feel that our country is better off when workers have the benefits of union representation. And they overwhelmingly disapprove of the kind of heavy-handed opposition by employers I’ve described here today.

Recent public opinion research shows that 74 percent of the public is convinced that employees should be free to make their own choice about forming a union without interference by management. Virtually all of the public disapproves of verbal harassment or firings as a way to squelch workers’ organizing efforts . . . and three-quarters object to managers forcing workers to attend anti-union meetings at work, employers threatening to relocate the work if employees form a union, and immediate supervisors using their influence to try to dissuade individual employees – all of which are commonly-used tactics today.

Three-fourths of the public also says it’s important to have strong labor laws that protect the right to form and join unions . . . and large majorities would support changes in the system to strengthen workers’ rights and place restrictions on anti-union campaigning by employers.

The public, it seems, is looking for a fair process that would guarantee workers a free choice.

  • A fair process would outlaw much of what is currently available in the employer’s arsenal: threats, retaliation, intimidation and harassment. The laws would be enforceable and the penalties for violations would be stiff.
  • A fair process would allow for open communication, without repression of free speech. Union supporters would have equal access and equal time in the discussion. Workers wouldn’t be forced to attend meetings where they hear only one side. Communication by management would be general, not personal; direct supervisors wouldn’t meet with individual workers behind closed doors.
  • And finally, a fair process would mean that when workers choose to organize, employers would be required to accept and negotiate a contract with their union. Period.

Clearly, for working Americans to be able to freely exercise what is recognized around the world as a basic human right, we need to change the rules. The current system is tragically unfair, not only to the individual workers whose lives are destroyed simply because they stand up for what they think is right, but to all working families – who reap the benefits of a strong labor movement, the lift in everyone’s living standards, whether they’re union members or not.

It’s also unfair to employers who do respect the rights and choices of their employees, who reward them for their hard work and give them a voice in their own future and, I would argue, who are subsidizing employers who don’t.

Restoring the American freedom to choose to form unions is the labor movement’s biggest priority, and it’s one that requires the active involvement not only of our own members but of all people of good will. In community after community, union members are joining with community and religious leaders and public officials to support workers in their organizing campaigns. Together, through hearings, forums, worksite visits, marches and rallies, we’ve been able to weaken employer opposition and help build the confidence to keep struggling for thousands of workers.

Of course, one of the things we really need is a major overhaul of our nation’s labor laws. But, to be perfectly frank, we know that labor law reform is a ways off. To get support for comprehensive legislation, we must first create greater awareness of how unions improve people’s lives and we must make injustice visible – by exposing the secret war going on in our workplaces.

That’s why the AFL-CIO organized “Seven Days in June” – a week-long series of community forums, rallies and demonstrations all across the country designed to shine a light on employers who are trying to deny workers the freedom to join a union. [Last year] we had 120 events in 37 states involving 30 unions as well as community organizations, religious leaders and elected officials. “Seven Days in June” was the beginning of a concerted effort to take our message to the public, to build community and political support for workers currently engaged in organizing campaigns and to lay the groundwork for eventual labor law reform.

It may take years to get there, but we must persevere, because what’s at stake is whether we are going to take a high road or a low road into the 21st century. Right now we’re on a low road – one filled with economic potholes created by employers who’ve decided to compete in the new world economy not by innovation and collaboration with workers, but by scavenging the world for the cheapest sources of labor and using the leverage to turn good jobs into bad jobs here at home.

The road we need to be on is one paved with economic justice, a road where workers get a fair share of the wealth they produce, where they have a real voice at work and in society, where they have health care and pensions to protect themselves and their loved ones, where the benefits of the strongest economy in the world are shared by the many, instead of being hoarded by the few.

There are paths to justice if we have the courage to take them, and if we have a union movement that is big enough and strong enough to help lead us. The way we build that kind of movement is by allowing workers to freely join unions, without fear of retribution or retaliation.

Only by joining together can we stop the secret war being carried out in the workplaces of America. Only by standing together can we restore the freedom to form and join unions. And only by fighting together can we restore the voices of working families in our workplaces, our communities, our government and in the global economy.