Until 1998 Sherri Bufkin happily worked as a manager for Smithfield Foods in
Tar Heel, N.C. But in 1997, when workers in the giant meatpacking plant there
began to organize a union, her superiors - she has testified - forced her to join
their campaign to "do whatever was necessary to keep [the union] out."
Bufkin also said she had to tell workers that they would suffer violence and
lose jobs if they formed a union, and that she had to discriminate in assignments
against pro-union workers. Worse yet, her bosses insisted that she fire some workers
simply because they openly supported a union. Then they demanded that she sign
false affidavits about management's tactics - many of which clearly violated laws
protecting workers' right to organize.
Shortly after she refused to lie for the company at a National Labor Relations
Board hearing, Smithfield fired her, plunging her into prolonged unemployment
and bankruptcy. "I don't regret standing up for the truth," she told a June 20
Senate committee hearing on obstacles to forming unions, "because now I can look
my daughter square in the eye."
Senators also heard from workers - like nurse Nancy Schweikhard, ship captain
Eric J. Vizier and hotel worker Mario Vidales - who told of being the direct victims
of management harassment, threats to close their workplaces, a beating by anti-union
thugs, and arrests or surveillance by police cooperating with anti-union employers.
But few other Americans heard these stories, because the hearing went nearly
unreported. That's a shame. At a time when the country is preoccupied with terrorism
from abroad and Enron-style corporate abuses at home, it is important to remember
that millions of American workers who would like to have a voice on the job have
been denied their internationally recognized human rights by corporations who
"in too many cases act like real domestic terrorists," in the words of AFL-CIO
organizer Stewart Acuff.
According to Senate testimony from Kenneth Roth, whose Human Rights Watch
group two years ago documented "widespread labor rights violations" in the United
States, in the 1950s a few hundred workers a year were fired - illegally - for
trying to organize unions. But in 1998 - despite a much lower level of union organizing
activity - 24,000 workers lost their jobs just because they were trying to exercise
their internationally guaranteed freedom to associate with other workers on the
Now, less than 14 percent of the U.S. workforce belong to unions, but surveys
suggest that 44 percent wish they did. Employer threats, firings and systematic
intimidation stifle many bids to unionize. In 92 percent of all organizing efforts,
employers force workers to attend anti-union meetings. In half of all campaigns
- and more than 70 percent of organizing at manufacturing businesses - employers
threaten to close the business and, often, to move overseas, if workers unionize.
This month, workers at Quadrtech, a small manufacturing plant in Southern
California, reached a financial settlement with management that also marked the
end of their attempt to unionize. Nearly two years ago, a federal court issued
an injunction to stop the owner from moving to Mexico in order to avoid unionization.
But the company reportedly kept trying to move.
Even when workers overcome employer obstacles and vote - or otherwise show
support - for a union, managers often refuse to negotiate a contract. For example,
much-abused farm workers have voted in 428 elections for the United Farm Workers
since 1975, but growers have only signed 185 contracts (although a bill awaiting
California Gov. Gray Davis's signature would require binding arbitration in deadlocked
negotiations). Employers suffer minuscule penalties that don't deter lawbreaking.
Early this month, the AFL-CIO launched a new campaign to protect worker rights
at work, especially the right to join unions without interference from employers.
A stronger worker voice would increase economic security and equality, restrain
abuse of corporate power, and enhance democracy.
As Kenneth Roth told the senators, "if the rights of workers are not respected
and protected, then the strength of American democracy and freedom is diminished."
Democracy and freedom need protection from physical threats of terrorists
- and from overzealous antiterrorists, like the Bush administration, which wants
to deny workers in a new Department of Homeland Security both civil service protections
and the right to organize into unions.
But democracy and freedom also must be safeguarded against the corporate economic
terrorism that hurts us all, not just working people directly denied their rights
to join together in a union.
David Moberg is a senior editor at the newsmagazine In These Times.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.