Card-Check Bill Passes House

To no one’s surprise, the Employee Free Choice Act passed in the House yesterday.

The measure would represent one of the most significant revisions of federal labor law in 60 years. It is the top legislative priority of the labor movement, which represents a record low 12 percent of the workforce, compared with 35 percent in the 1950s. Major business lobbies have mobilized against it to a level not seen since the fight over Bush’s 2001 tax cuts, according to a Chamber of Commerce official. Yesterday’s 241 to 184 vote was largely along party lines, with 13 Republicans voting for the measure and two Democrats opposing it.

The real fight will come in the Senate where Republicans, representing the corporatocracy as always, have promised to filibuster to prevent its passage. Their primary argument for public purposes is that the EFCA would eliminate the secret ballot, “a cornerstone of democracy”. It’s by far the best argument they could make against the law even though it’s bogus. In what has become a standard GOP tactic, it makes them sound as if they’re protecting workers’ rights even as they vote to take them away.

The irony here is that if the Bush Administration, particularly its Labor and Justice Depts, were doing their jobs, which they’re not, this bill wouldn’t be necessary. Continue reading

NLRB Nixes Unions for Graduate Students


Published: NYT, July 16, 2004

The fast-growing movement to unionize graduate students at the nation’s private universities suffered a crushing setback yesterday when the National Labor Relations Board reversed itself and ruled that students who worked as research and teaching assistants did not have the right to unionize.

In a case involving Brown University, the labor board ruled 3 to 2 that graduate teaching and research assistants were essentially students, not workers, and thus should not have the right to unionize to negotiate over wages, benefits and other conditions of employment.

The Republican-controlled board reversed a four-year-old decision involving New York University, a private institution, in which the board, then controlled by Democrats, concluded that graduate teaching and research assistants should be able to unionize because their increased responsibilities had essentially turned them into workers.

As a result of the 2000 N.Y.U. ruling, students there formed the first graduate employees’ union at a private university in the nation. (Graduate student workers at public universities are governed by state labor laws rather than federal law, and many states have given them the right to unionize.)

“The previous decision in the N.Y.U. case overturned over 30 years of determinations by the National Labor Relations Board on whether graduate students who worked as teaching and research assistants were students or employees,” Mr. Steinbach said. “And it threatened the traditional relationship between colleges and their graduate student assistants.”But Edward J. McElroy, the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, who is set to be elected the union’s president today, called the decision “outrageous.”

“These people obviously are workers,” Mr. McElroy said. “If members of the N.L.R.B. can’t recognize a worker when they see one, they shouldn’t be on a national labor board.”

[T]he board stated that “there is a significant risk, even a strong likelihood, that the collective-bargaining process will be detrimental to the educational process.”Philip Wheeler, the U.A.W.’s director for New York and New England, derided the labor board’s logic.

“I understand that they say it would be too disruptive to the great American education system,” Mr. Wheeler said. “Once upon a time, they said that unionizing would be too disruptive for American manufacturing. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.”

There is more at stake here than whether or not graduate students–who have been given more and more responsibilities over the years, including teaching classes, grading exams, acting as advisors to junior students, and doing all a professor’s clerical chores (40 hr weeks are no longer uncommon)–will be paid a decent wage for their efforts. What this is really about is the threat posed by a generation of bright young men and women convinced that unions are a good, perhaps necessary, mechanism for restraining the power of employers to dictate terms, and then taking that conviction out into the world with them where it could (Horrors!) spread.

The grad student unions were an important first step in reminding a generation that has been trained to think of unions as evil, corrupt, and unnecessary that they are no such thing; that they are in fact a key element of any stable working relationship, and that without them to protect your rights you are often no less than chattel to be used and abused by a power structure that takes you for granted and pays you starvation wages to boot.

The movement was spreading and it had to be stopped. The NLRB took the first step by overturning a decision that said that private universities–the Pubs’ favorite kind–had to adhere to the same rules as public colleges for the hoi-polloi but one doubts that the decision outlawing unions there as well can be far behind. A Republican NLRB is going to back the employers, period. They always have, they always will.

Workers Are Catching On

By Peter Wallsten, LA Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Osvaldo Millet makes a good living — $43 an hour plus overtime — as a hospital pharmacist in Miami. The overtime pays for vacations and other extras for his family of five, but that money might disappear under a Bush administration initiative.

Jeff Deckard is a member of the National Rifle Assn. who voted for Ronald Reagan and isn’t fond of the Democratic Party’s more liberal views. But the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, electrician has soured on President Bush. Deckard is out of work and his unemployment checks will soon end if the Republican-led Congress doesn’t extend benefits.

The worries of Millet and Deckard reflect a political challenge for Bush as he increasingly pins his reelection hopes on the fruits of a recovering economy that has posted nine consecutive months of job gains.

Bush is an unabashedly pro-business president. But he is also working to forge an image as a friend of the American worker, part of his effort to win such battleground states as Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

However, some of his policies — including new overtime regulations and his push to eliminate rules designed to reduce repetitive-stress injuries — carry a risk of alienating voters who otherwise would lean toward supporting him.

“It doesn’t seem to me that he looks out for the working person,” said Millet, 43, a Cuban-born Republican who has never voted for a Democratic candidate for president but is now considering doing so.

And Deckard already has begun voting for Democratic candidates because he is unhappy with how GOP workplace policies are affecting him.

On the campaign trail, the president has cited recent job gains, tax cuts and his support for worker retraining programs. Administration officials have said that workers are safer and more financially secure than before Bush took office, with workplace injuries at an all-time low and back wages collected on behalf of workers at an 11-year high.

But even some supporters of the administration said that Bush has often favored the interests of business over those of labor — a fact that they like.

“When it comes to business-versus-labor issues,” said Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth, an advocacy group that favors low taxes and limited government, “Bush has been down the line pro-business in a way that we think is praiseworthy.”

‘Nine consecutive months of job gains’ tranlates into this: it has taken 9 months to regain less than a third of the jobs that were lost in the first three years of the Bush Administration, which–do the math–means that it would take another year-and-a-half of similar record gains every month just to get back to where we were when he took office. Workers may be a little slow to catch on to tricks and dodges, but we’re not stupid. Eventually, we get it.

Labor Law in Reality: A Personal Experience

Shortly after I graduated high school (and had gotten thrown out of my first college–UNH–after the first semester), I got married. Naturally, I needed a job. I found one in the warehouse at a company called Booth Fisheries that had just opened a plant in Portsmouth. The Home Office was in Brownsville, Texas, and they brought their Texas management style with them.

# The minimum number of breaks the law required were given and for the minimum amount of time–10 mins–even though most NE companies had moved to 15 or even 20 by then. These breaks were rigidly enforced, to the point where women who had to pee outside break-time weren’t allowed to leave the line long enough to go to the bathroom. This created health problems for a number of them.

# Workers were regularly stopped on their way out the door to go home and accused of stealing stock or equipment, not only without any proof that they had done it but without any proof that anything had been stolen. Some had to submit to personal searches of themselves and their clothes. No one was ever found to have stolen anything; the company considered that proof that the searches had stopped employee thieving even though nothing had been stolen to begin with, so they kept doing it despite employee protests.

# Managers had been told to yell at people without reason on the theory that intimidation would keep employees ‘on their toes’, and did so most of the day. The smallest infraction or mistake was enough to get you hauled ino the line manager’s office and yelled at so loud we could hear it over the machines. Two mistakes and they would cut your pay rate; three and you could be fired. Some were.

# ‘Orientation’ for new employees consisted largely of a video of lies about unions stealing from their members and a lecture on the general evils of unions.

# When the company was negotiating for the contract to provide McDonald’s with the patties for its fish sandwiches (a contract worth $$millions$$ to Booth), in order to prove that they could handle the size of the order they sped the line up so fast that none of the workers could keep up with it and the machines kept breaking down. Supervisors roamed the lines verbally abusing anyone who had trouble keeping up. One woman whose machine kept breaking down was accused of deliberately sabotaging it and slapped across the face by a manager. Another was fired because she dropped a box of fish sticks.

# Workers were often berated, sent home early without warning or kept late without choice as punishment for a mistake or talking back to a supervisor. If they balked, they were disciplined or even fired. One woman who was ordered to stay 3 hrs after her usual quitting time was fired when she insisted on leaving the line to call her husband to tell him–he was driving ten miles to pick her up.

As things went from bad to worse, anger began to build up. A couple of us began to say we needed the protection of a union, and when enough people agreed we called a representative of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters. We had several meetings at various employees’ homes, circulated a petition in secret, and when there were enough signatures, the AMC rep presented the petition to management and demanded a vote.

From that point on, things got nasty. The company found various pretexts to prevent union reps from talkimg to us on-site before the vote, sometimes by force. They identified the people they thought were behind getting the union and harrassed them–threatening phone calls in the middle of the night, black cars with burly men in them following us wherever we went, anonymous death threats by mail and hand-delivered. Some of us who were careless were even beaten when they could catch us alone. One guy suffered a broken arm and cracked ribs, and quit both the union effort and the company. Companies where spouses worked were called by Booth reps and told to stop their wives from working for the union or Booth would get them fired.

The union protested these actions to the State Labor Board, but the NHLB was composed of businessmen who hated unions and they did nothing. The threats and beatings were reported to the police, but they said that unless we–we–could prove that Booth was behind them, they couldn’t do anything. I said to one of them ‘Isn’t that your job?’ and he ordered me out of the station under threat of arrest for ‘disturbing the peace’.

The union reps did what they could to keep us calm but as the vote approached, the company switched tactics. The brass from Brownsville–the President, a few VP’s, a couple of corporate lawyers–arrived and took over. One-by-one we were each taken into the cafeteria and made to sit before a table full of glowering suits who demanded to know how we were going to vote. They said they had a right to do this. They didn’t. It’s illegal. But the low-income folks they’d concentrated on hiring didn’t know that.

We were asked what our complaints were and they were dutifully written down. They told us in detail the changes they planned to make to address those complaints; those promises were NOT written down and from what people said when they came out of the cafeteria, it seemed they had promised a lot of people a lot of different things. After the promises of improvements, the suits turned to threats. Run down the list in the previous post–they did or promised to do all of them, one after the other. Plus one that isn’t there: we had a lot of women working in that plant, so the suits told the married workers that if they voted for the union they’d see to it their husbands lost their jobs.

When I went in, they told me right off the bat that they had me tabbed as a ‘troublemaker’ and that whether the union won or lost, I was going to be fired as soon as the vote was over. Then they dismissed me. They didn’t ask me how I was going to vote. They didn’t care.

The threats and promises worked. The union was voted down, though not by much despite all the heavy-handed tactics; that meant that the union threat was still in the air. Within a month, all the ‘troublemakers’ were gone. They got rid of me by having a young supervisor hide behind a crate in the warehouse. When I passed by on my forklift, he jumped out from behind the crate and threw himself against the side of the fork lift claiming I had ‘run him down.’ He then fired me for ‘recklessness’.

I protested first to an unemployment inspector and then to the Labor Board. The inspector let me and my witnesses speak our piece, then found for the compoany without their having to say a word in their own defense. The NHLB was exactly the opposite: they listened to the company and upheld their action without letting either me or my witnesses say a word in defense.

The company, needless to say, kept none of its promises to improve conditions and they continued to deteriorate. Employment at the plant was like a revolving door–as one was going in, two were coming out. The company complained that it was constantly understaffed and couldn’t keep workers. A year or so later, they closed the plant because, as an executive explained to the local paper, ‘People in New Hampshire don’t want to work.’

I know the law gives us rights on paper, but where’s the reality?

It’s a good question. Paper law may favor the worker but practical law sides with the owners. When it comes to labor law–

In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls.–Lenny Bruce

Garment Workers Force Changes

A group of garment workers and their teenage daughters forced the garment industry in Oakland, CA’s Chinatown to improve their working conditions.

By Lee Romney, LA Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — For nearly a decade, Kwei Fong Lin tolerated numbness in her forearms. Like a great many Chinese immigrants who work in this city’s cramped and poorly equipped garment factories, her neck and back ached from long days spent hunched over a sewing machine while perched on rickety folding chairs, stools or even crates.

“We just took the pain as it came,” the 52-year-old Hong Kong native said in Cantonese.

But an unlikely revolution has taken root here. Today, dozens of women work in relative comfort while seated on customized ergonomic chairs. Simple table extensions relieve their tired shoulders. Wooden footrests keep their legs from dangling. Padded sleeves cushion the metal rods they must press hundreds of times a day with their knees to clamp and release fabric.

A city grant will soon bring the ergonomic equipment to other garment shops that dot Oakland’s Chinatown and other commercial strips. And the project has spawned a much larger study now underway in Los Angeles County — the heart of California’s rag trade.

Most surprising in an industry synonymous with powerless and mistreated workers: The women made it happen. They did it with the help of a group of teenage girls tired of seeing their seamstress mothers suffer, and a team of medical professionals, ergonomics experts, state health officials and product designers.

(It’s an inspiring story and an example of what govt and industry can do together when they try.)