Multinational Monitor

VOL 27 No. 4


No Choices: Australia's Unions Confront Labor Law "Reform"
by Graham Matthews

Mexican Miners Rise Up: The Explosive Dispute Over Privatization
by David Bacon

Giving Workers the Business: World Bank Support for Labor Deregulation
by Peter Bakvis


Disposable Workers: Layoffs and Their Consequences
An Interview with Louis Uchitelle

Undermining Democracy: Worker Repression in the United States
An Interview with David Bonior

A Kind of Modern Slavery: Labor Flexibility Comes to Indonesia
An Interview with Saepul Tavip


Behind the Lines

The Labor Flexibility Con

The Front
Pfizer vs. The Philippines -- Conflict at the Academies

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Book Notes

The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class -- Misadventures in Corporate Media -- Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation

Names In the News


Undermining Democracy: Worker Repression in the United States

An Interview with David Bonior

David BoniorDavid Bonior is the chair of American Rights at Work, a Washington D.C.-based organization that advocates for the freedom of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively with employers. He also serves as University Professor of Labor Studies at Wayne State University. Bonior is a former Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, to which he was elected from Michigan. When he retired at the end of 2002, he had held the position of Democratic Whip, the second ranking Democrat in the House, for 10 years.

Multinational Monitor: Why are unionization rates so low in the U.S. private sector and higher in the public sector?

David Bonior: There’s been a chipping away at the basic 1935 National Labor Relations Act to the detriment of working people. The law was established to allow them to form unions and to protect them in that endeavor. Since 1935, however, those protections have been eroded by a series of court decisions and legislative actions — including the Taft-Hartley Act and the Landrum-Griffith Act — the actions of different administrations like Reagan’s handling of the air traffic controllers strike, plus a variety of decisions that have been handed down from the National Labor Relations Board, which is the agency that is made to enforce the National Labor Relations Act and protect workers. If you add all of that up and throw into the mix the relatively new phenomena of union-busting law firms — firms primarily hired for the specific reason of busting any attempts to organize a union in the workplace — you just have a very, very bad situation. That’s one of the reasons that union density is down.

Of course, there are other reasons. The outsourcing of manufacturing jobs has cut tremendously into union membership. The United Auto Workers (UAW) is a good example. When I came to the Congress in 1977, the UAW had about a million and a half workers; today it has just under 600,000 workers. That has been due to opposition to organizing in the United States, especially by foreign companies operating here, and the outsourcing of jobs abroad.

Another factor that should be mentioned, in addition to union-busting and outsourcing, is the lack of understanding in the culture today of the importance of unions in establishing a base of benefits and wages whether you belong to a union or not. And understanding the struggles of the labor movement. We at American Rights at Work try to address those issues in our work.

MM: Given the framework of U.S. labor law, how prevalent are violations of rights that are supposedly guaranteed?

Bonior: They are very prevalent. Twenty-three thousand workers every year are fired or discriminated against at their workplace for union-related activities, according to National Labor Relations Board statistics. These are just the people that we know, and who have filed claims. There are probably tens of thousands of others who would fall into that category, but don’t bother to pursue a recourse to their discriminations and firings. It is a huge problem. To give you some perspective on that: the International Labor Organization arm of the United Nations ranks all member countries based upon compliance with labor law, and the United States ranks in the bottom twentieth percentile. We are down there with Iran and with Afghanistan. We do not comply with our own labor law. As a result, we’ve seen the numbers of illegal firings and discriminations shoot up from five and six hundred in the 1960s to a few thousand in the 1970s now to epidemic proportions of 23,000 to 30,000 a year.

MM: What’s the social impact of that?

Bonior: The overall impact for the economy is that fewer people are represented by unions. Fewer people have a voice at work. More people are at-will workers — in other words, totally at the mercy of their employer, with virtually no say in their work situations. As a result, the wages and benefits of working people have either been frozen or declining over the past 25 years — while, of course, the wages and benefits of the executives have gone through the ceiling.

MM: In a typical organizing campaign, what obstacles do union supporters face?

Bonior: If you go the National Labor Relations Board route and petition for an election, you need a certain number of signatures to get the Board to hold the election — usually around a third of the workers. You file the signatures, the Board schedules a date for the election, and then the campaign ensues. But the campaign is very unfair under the standards and rules that have been set up by the National Labor Relations Board.

Under these rules and the Board’s weak enforcement of the rules that do exist, the employer can hold captive one-on-one meetings with employees. Employers regularly threaten to move their company out of the country if a union is formed. The employers oftentimes through their union-busting firms will provide bribes (such as promotions to leading union supporters).

There have been two significant studies on the illegal and legal abuses by employers in union organizing campaigns. One was by Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor scholar at Cornell. She found that 85 to 90 percent of workers have to go through one-on-one meetings with their supervisors. Twenty-five percent of all organizing drives end up with somebody being illegally fired — and that sends a message to everybody else that if you go the union route, you too could end up being fired from your job. Fifty percent of employers threaten to leave the country or to shut down if the workers vote to join a union.

American Rights at Work commissioned the University of Illinois at Chicago to update these numbers, focusing on organizing in the Chicago area.

What we found was that the number of abusive activities even increased. So there is a lot of intimidation at the workplace.

MM: If the union manages to prevail in the election, how do the employers typically respond?

Bonior: We did a study of workers in the nursing home industry in South Florida. These are folks that basically had no representation, they were making seven bucks or $7.50 an hour, and they had no health benefits even though they were taking care of our parents and grandparents. They voted themselves a union.

After workers vote for a union, the employers appeal the election to the National Labor Relations Board. The Board takes six months to a year to decide whether their appeal has any validity. If the Board decides in favor of the workers, the employer says, “Okay, we’ll just take that to the next level. We’ll take that to the courts.” So they go the court route.

In the case of the South Florida nursing home industry, we found it typically takes five, six, seven years to settle. By that time, you dissipate the union — all of the energy is taken out of it. It’s one of the reasons why the ILO ranks us in the bottom 20 percent of compliance in the world today.

The Employee Free Choice Act, which is pending in Congress, would change all of that. It would establish that workers could join a union through “card check.” When 50 percent of workers at a workplace sign a card that says they want to have a union and that’s verified by a proper agency, then you have a union. That’s what happens in Canada, it is what happens in Western Europe. It happens a lot now in the United States — 80 percent of all new union members in the United States are joining through card-check, because the NLRB elections system is neither free nor fair.

MM: Where there are violations of labor law, what are the remedies available for the affected workers? What kind of enforcement mechanisms are there?

Bonior: Right now there is very little enforcement. If you get fired for trying to organize, for example, you can apply to the NLRB. If the NLRB finds that you were illegally fired, the employer has to give you back-pay for the time you were fired — minus any money that you may have earned at another job. As you can imagine, most people who are fired for trying to organize will, in fact, get another job somewhere, so there’s no compensation for them at all. Then all the employer has to do is post on a bulletin board at the work site that they won’t do it again. So there are effectively no sanctions, and it is in the employers’ interest to fire people. They really don’t suffer many consequences for doing so, and firing a leading union supporter sends a very powerful message to the rest of the employees. The message is: if you too try to lead an organizing campaign, you are going to lose your job; and if you vote for a union, you could lose your job.

MM: What are the things that the Bush NLRB has done that have caused you to say that they are stripping worker protections?

Bonior: They’ve done a number of things over the last two years. They have taken away the rights of temporary workers to form a union. They’ve taken away the rights of people with physical disabilities who receive rehabilitative services from their employer to join a union. They’ve taken away the rights of research assistants and graduate student teachers to join a union at private universities. They just keep chipping away.

And, in a series of cases called the “Kentucky River cases,” they have basically just decided to allow employers to re-classify workers as supervisors — who are not permitted under Taft-Hartley to join a union. Now, if you have a smidgen of supervisory responsibility, you will not be allowed to join a union. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that this could deprive an additional 8 or 9 million people of the right to join a union. You add that on top of the 32 million that are already exempt from the ability to join a union through the National Labor Relations Act, and you add all of the other pieces that we’ve just talked about and it becomes clear that it is very difficult to organize in America. It is a scandal.

The right of association is a Constitutional civil liberty right. It is like the right to free speech, the right to a free press, the right to religion. When you don’t have the right to association, you really threaten your democracy. There is no more important place to associate than within your workplace. The first thing that a dictator, a Hitler, a Pinochet, will do is get rid of the right of association, and that is exactly what has been happening and accelerating in the United States in regards to workers at the workplace.

MM: In addition to mandatory card-check, are there other reforms that you are pushing for U.S. labor law?

Bonior: In addition to card-check, we want to increase the penalty for people who violate the law. Under the Employee Free Choice Act, penalties increase tremendously to employers, so there actually is a sanction against violating the law. Currently, once you get union recognition, oftentimes the employer won’t bargain. They won’t go to the table. This legislation would require that they come to the table within a certain amount of time, and if that doesn’t happen they go to mediation, and then binding arbitration.

MM: Do you think that workers in the U.S. would be better off just scrapping altogether the National Labor Relations Act?

Bonior: No, although there are some labor people who believe that.

I think what we need are good people on the Board who are there to enforce the original intent of the Act. We also need support obviously from the President and Congress to strengthen the Act. I think that’s where we need to go.

MM: Globally, the United States is held up, at least by employers, as a model of “labor flexibility” that other countries should emulate. What’s your analysis of labor flexibility in the U.S. system?

Bonior: There’s not very much flexibility for workers. In the United States, workers are pretty much at-will, meaning they are at the mercy of their employers and can be fired for virtually any reason. They have very little say. It’s much different in Europe, where the system is more fair and understanding.

There are some U.S. employers that recognize the benefits of cooperating more with employees. You can contrast Wal-Mart, or Sam’s Club, with Costco. Costco understands that if you pay people and give them decent benefits, you’ll have a better workforce. And they do. They have much less turnover. They make much more profit per worker, because they treat their workers well. It is the same with Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare West, Harley Davidson, Cingular Wireless — there’s a large number of companies that do this well and do it right. And are very profitable and everyone wins — the workers, the shareholders and the community.

That’s the high road, and that’s the model that we at American Rights at Work advocate.

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