March 15, 1999

Guest Column

Right to organize gains more attention from
AFL-CIO

Judy Ancel

These days the media is full of self-congratulatory pronouncements by business and government leaders about the robust economy. Hardly a word  is uttered about growing economic equality. Working people, however, know they've been left out of most of the fruits of these "boom" times. The average employee works more hours, more jobs, enduring speedup, rampant repetitive strain injuries, and earns real wages lower than what he or she made in 1972.

The AFL-CIO wants to change this by making the right to organize unions a struggle equivalent to the civil rights movement. Last month, they announced at their Executive Council meeting that they will make support for workers' right to organize a litmus test for politicians who want labor's support and get them, along with community leaders and clergy, to support organizing with moral and political pressure on corporations that resist  unionization.

Indeed, the right to organize is a fundamental human right. Over 50 years  ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed that "everyone      has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his or her interests." The right of freedom of association is one of the core conventions of the International Labor Organization. Yet every day throughout the world, including the United States, employers and governments violate it.

When American workers try to organize, they face intimidation, spies, discharge on flimsy pretexts, and interminable delays that allow the employer to eat away at union support. Employers hold "captive audience meetings," hauling employees in to harangue them with all sorts of distortions about unions. The half-billion-dollar-a-year union-busting consulting industry encourages employers to break the law since the penalties are so light that  it's worth it, and in over half the organizing campaigns, employers make veiled or open threats to shut down or move.

It's interesting to note what happens when the employer refrains from anti-union tactics and remains neutral. This happened here at Kaiser Permanente, which signed a national neutrality agreement with the AFL-CIO. The union  was free to have meetings on site and do card-check recognition. As soon    as the Service Employees Union had signed up 50 percent of the workers in two units, Kaiser recognized them.

"Running this type of recognition campaign significantly reduces the fear that workers have in making a decision to join a union. When employees face fear campaigns, with employer threats and slander against the union, it is no wonder that even when more than 80 percent of employees sign cards, the union loses the election," said Mike Heffron, an Service Employees Union organizer.

Why shouldn't employer neutrality be the norm? The decision to organize   and form a union is not the business of the employer. Do the workers have a say when employers join their "unions" such as the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and contractors' associations? So why should the employer have the right to declare war on the workers just because they want to elect representatives to speak collectively with the boss?

Why do so many U.S. employers fight unionization so hard? Is it because they're so used to dictatorship in the workplace that they simply can't imagine the idea of sharing power, or is it just the same old greed for profits which leads some of them to also reintroduce child labor and the 60 or 70 hour work week?

Globalization and the end of the Cold War have seemingly erased all boundaries on corporate greed and exploitation. Corporations are running amok, seeking higher returns with less willingness to share with the workers who create the profits. There's a lack of checks and balances to curb these excesses, and the results will be disastrous for all of us, including the corporations.

That's why the right of workers to organize and form unions without interference has become a burning issue in the U.S., Mexico, Indonesia,   even China. As corporations drive down wages and working conditions, they create fouled environments, crippled workers, hungry, uneducated children, and ultimately political instability. This will come back to haunt profitability. Rather than wait for that, wouldn't it be more enlightened to concede that workers have rights and to recognize that unions help create necessary checks and balances to make corporations act responsibly to both workers and communities, and in the end to the stockholders as well?

Judy Ancel is director of The Institute for Labor Studies, a joint project of The University of Missouri-Kansas City and Longview Community College.

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