IMAGINE A PLACE where you were spied on just for speaking your mind. Imagine a place where you were forced to attend meetings pushing a line you disagreed with and weren't even allowed to speak. Imagine a place where you were fired just for signing your name. Does this sound like another country or something out of the distant past?
The fact is this is what happens every day in America's workplaces when workers try to form unions to improve their lives. Half of US workers say they would form a union tomorrow to win fair treatment and a voice on the job, but here in Massachusetts and in thousands of other workplaces across the country, workers are being lied to, harassed, threatened, coerced, followed, disciplined, and even fired when they try to exercise their legal right to form a union.
As you read this, workers at Telcom USA in Lawrence and at Saint Gobain in Worcester are fighting an uphill battle in their struggle to be recognized.
At Telcom USA last summer, 41 of these workers were fired for trying to form a union. Many have since left the United States, some are on unemployment insurance, and most have no prospects. They wanted a say in their workplace; they wanted to help determine their wages, benefits, working conditions, and the quality of the product or service they provide. Instead, they got fired for trying to exercise a federally guaranteed right. With labor law being what it is, these workers might get reinstated in their jobs two or three years from now. Until then, they're on their own.
The same is true at Saint Gobain in Worcester, where workers voted nearly 2 1/2 years ago to form a union, but have been stonewalled by their employers since then. Since the vote in August 2001, Saint Gobain, a giant French company, has done everything in its power not to negotiate a fair first contract with its workers; the company has tried to decertify the union, has concentrated on picayune issues in negotiations, and has harassed workers.
What has happened at Telcom USA and at Saint Gobain is not unique; in fact, it is part of a sad trend. According to Cornell University scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner, when workers start talking union, almost all employers force them to attend aggressive antiworker meetings. In three-quarters of organizing campaigns, employers use one-on-one sessions to intimidate workers -- especially undocumented and immigrant workers who can be threatened with deportation privately and illegally. Half of employers threaten to close the workplace. A quarter of employers go so far as to fire workers who are seeking to form a union. The National Labor Relations Board reports that 20,000 US workers are victimized every year.
This Friday is International Human Rights Day, and the ability to form a union is one of the basic rights delineated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed on Dec. 10, 1948. The declaration protects our freedom of speech, assembly, and religion and states unequivocally that "everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."
The workers at Telcom USA and Saint Gobain want to use that freedom, and we as responsible Americans cannot accept their rights being violated. But US labor laws are too weak and broken to protect them.
Workers across Massachusetts and New England and their allies are taking part in a massive rally and march in Boston Dec. 10 to call attention to the plight of workers trying to form a union. We believe that when Americans know what is going on, they won't tolerate such behavior on the part of employers and will call out with us for strong legislation. Our elected officials at all levels must show themselves to be firmly in support of workers everywhere, as well as in favor of major new federal legislatin aimed at strengthening the rights of workers to freely choose a union.
When employers violate the right of workers to form a union, everyone suffers. Our basic freedomes are compromised. Wages fall, race and gender pay gaps widen, workplace discrimination increases, and job safety standards disappear. Unions are the best tool we have for fighting poverty and bringing about social justice.
Robert J. Haynes and Kathleen A. Casavant are president and treasurer of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, which represents more than 400,000 men and women.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.