Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Union Rights Are Human Rights
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Few rights are more important than the right to engage freely in union
activities. Yet millions of men and women are illegally and routinely denied
the exercise of that fundamental right in this supposedly most free of all

There is a law to guarantee U.S. workers union rights -- the National Labor Relations Act -- that's been on the books since 1935. But the law is only barely enforced and is, in any case, greatly in need of strengthening.

Which is why a coalition of labor, community, political, immigrant, religious, student and human rights organizations have launched a national campaign aimed at securing the reforms that are essential if the law is to realize its vital promise.

The right of unionization, as AFL-CIO President John Sweeney declared, "is at the heart of economic justice. It's just as precious as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and we're going to fight for it."

The lack of firm legal rights is the main reason only about 13 percent of
the country's workers belong to unions, as compared to the high of 35
percent in the 1950s and the current average of about 40 percent in Canada and other western nations.

Studies by government, academic and union researchers show that thousands of employers regularly intimidate workers who support or attempt to organize unions, often threatening to fire or otherwise punish them despite the provisions against such actions in the Labor Relations Act.

Employers have been able to blatantly violate the law because the legal
penalties are slight, usually small fines at most, and often not even
imposed. And workers fear complaining to the government, knowing it usually takes months -- if not years -- for the government to act and that meanwhile they will lose their jobs. That keeps many from even attempting to exercise their supposed union rights. Other workers, such as the millions holding temporary jobs, aren't even covered by the law.

Surveys show that at least 42 million non-union workers want to unionize but won't try because they fear employer retaliation. That';s nearly one-third of all U.S. workers. Every year, more than 20,000 who do try to organize unions at their workplaces are punished, half of them fired.

Employers faced with union organizing campaigns commonly order supervisors to spy on organizers and force workers to attend meetings at which they rail against unions, often asserting falsely that unionization will lead to pay cuts, layoffs or even force them out of business. Similar messages are delivered to workers one-on-one by supervisors.

In one-third of the instances in which workers nevertheless vote for union
representation, the employer simply refuses to agree to a contract with the
union. Workers who strike to try to force employers to reach an agreement or otherwise follow the law face a very real risk of being permanently

Avoiding unionization is financially well worth it to employers. Whatever
their jobs, union members are much better compensated than their non-union counterparts. Overall, they're paid an average of 25 percent more and are guaranteed employer-financed health insurance, pensions, paid holidays and vacations, sick leaves and other fringe benefits that most non-members lack.

The most important thing members gain is dignity -- the promise, as one union organizer noted, of being treated like a man or woman, with rights and abilities that management must respect.

Union members also are assured a greater voice in political affairs and
community activities, given organized labor's prominence in such matters.

What's obviously needed is stiffer fines, swiftly imposed, and other
penalties on employers who so openly violate workers' union rights and
extension of those rights to all workers.

There's an obvious need as well to remove the amendments imposed on the
Labor Relations Act by the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. They shifted the intent
of the law away from its original purpose of encouraging unionization by,
among other changes, allowing employers to intervene in union organizing
campaigns and prohibiting union members from waging sympathy strikes and otherwise limiting their ability to act in solidarity with other workers.

Even more than that, the law should deny employers the right to replace
strikers, require them to grant union organizers full access to their
workplaces and force those employers who balk at reaching union contract
agreements to have the terms dictated by an arbitrator.

It also would make sense if union recognition was granted automatically on the signing of authorization forms or union membership cards by a majority of an employer's workers. That's how it was originally, with no lengthy union election campaigns, no chance for employers to intimidate workers.

Bills to carry out those and other badly needed reforms have long been
pending in both houses of Congress. It's time to fully honor our commitment to human rights and finally enact them.

Copyright Dick Meister