Published on Friday, June 28, 2002 in The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va.
You Don’t Need Union, Son, ’Cause You Don’t Work Here Anymore
by Rick Mercier
SURE, IT'S A FREE country--so go ahead and try to join a union. Just don't expect to keep your job.
That was the theme last week of a U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on obstacles workers face in forming unions.
One of those who testified at the hearing was Sherri Bufkin of Bladenboro, N.C. A former division manager for Smithfield Foods, Bufkin told senators all about how her erstwhile employer had a penchant for canning more than just hams.
"Too many days I'd come home from work crying," she said, "and my daughter would ask, 'Mommy, who did you have to fire today?'"
Bufkin testified that Smithfield ordered her "to fire employees who supported the union and that the company told me it was either my job or theirs."
When the union trying to organize workers at her plant filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over several firings, a company attorney wrote affidavits for Bufkin to sign that were partly untrue. "The attorney wrote things that came out of his own mouth, and I told him they weren't true," she testified. "I had no choice but to sign the affidavits, because I had a family to feed."
In 1998, just before the case involving the NLRB went to court, company attorneys told Bufkin she'd have to testify. She said she wouldn't lie about what was going on at her plant--and the company responded by sacking her.
Most Americans have no idea that employers use such heavy-handed tactics to quash union organizing. We've been led to believe that workers in the United States enjoy an unfettered right to freedom of association, and that employees these days simply don't have an interest in joining a union.
But a recent AFL-CIO survey found that 30 million non-union workers would like to join a union. That figure encompasses 44 percent of all private-sector workers in the United States.
What stops lots of folks from joining a union (only 13.5 percent of all U.S. workers currently belong to one) is good old-fashioned fear and intimidation. According to the AFL-CIO, nine out of 10 businesses, when faced with unionizing efforts, make employees attend closed-door meetings to listen to anti-union propaganda. Four out of five bosses respond to union activity by forcing supervisors to pressure employees in one-on-one meetings. And half of employers threaten to shut down if employees vote to join a union.
Some bosses get even nastier: The AFL-CIO found that employers illegally fire workers for supporting a union in 25 percent of organizing campaigns.
Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told the Senate committee that the right to form unions in the United States "is in serious jeopardy. There are widespread violations of the right across all sectors [of the economy]."
A report released by the human-rights group in 2000 found that discrimination against workers engaging in legally protected union activity has risen sharply in recent decades. In 1969--more or less the height of the labor movement in this country--slightly more than 6,000 workers suffered reprisals (including job termination) for exercising their right to freedom of association. By the 1990s, more than 20,000 workers annually were victims of discrimination for union activity.
The report said "a culture of near-impunity has taken shape in much of U.S. labor law and practice." The deterrents employers face--reinstatement orders that workers often decline and paltry back-pay awards--aren't nearly enough to keep them from taking aim at uppity employees who get funny ideas about bringing in a union.
What do workers lose by not being able to unionize? The AFL-CIO says union workers' median weekly earnings are 25 percent higher than those of their non-union counterparts. Women and African-Americans who belong to unions enjoy 30 percent higher wages; and Latinos who join unions can expect a 45 percent boost in weekly earnings.
Then there's the all-important matter of "fringe" benefits--such as a pension and health insurance. Seventy percent of union workers receive a guaranteed pension, versus only 16 percent of their non-union counterparts. And nearly three-fourths of union workers have health benefits, compared with only half of non-union workers.
In a democratic society, people shouldn't have to run the risk of losing their jobs to win these gains in wages and benefits.
Members of Congress must do more than hold hearings on workers' rights. They should look to Sherri Bufkin as an example and stick their necks out for working Americans--even if that means incurring the wrath of their corporate masters.
RICK MERCIER is coordinator of the Viewpoints section and a columnist for The Free Lance-Star. E-mail: email@example.com
Copyright 2002, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co