Watching "Jeopardy" recently on ABC's Bangor affiliate, I was stunned by a visually powerful and virulently anti-labor ad. The ad asked rhetorically "what would happen if labor bosses controlled class elections?" It portrayed a mafialike teen peering over elementary school children about to vote for their class officers.
Produced by "Union Facts," the ad cites an impending threat to workers' freedoms. That threat is the proposed card check legislation under which a union would be recognized if a majority of workers sign a card in support of union representation. The ad suggests that harassment by union bosses would soon replace the long established democratic traditions of the secret ballot in American workplaces.
Union Facts, however, leaves out and distorts many facts not lost on most American workers. Corporate workplaces are hardly models of American democracy. When workers seek to unionize, their efforts are often met with fierce and illegal resistance. Even when employers obey existing labor law, they can engage in practices that violate minimal democratic norms.
Charges of coercion by union bosses make strange reading when one examines the recent National Labor Relations Board reports. Even the most pro-corporate labor board in our nation's history documents an extraordinary run of management abuses. University of Oregon Professor Gordon Lafer points out: "Over the period of 2000-05, there were an average of ... over 19,000 charges filed per year alleging employer violations of federal labor law; of these, 40 percent -- or 8, 500 cases per year -- presented sufficiently strong evidence that the Labor Board either issued a complaint or oversaw an informal settlement ... While both unions and employers violate the law, the vast majority of charges stem from employer behavior. In 2004, for example, 88.5 percent of all complaints issued by the Board, and over 90 percent of all cases tried [by] the full Board, addressed illegal behavior by employers." (www.americanrightsatwork.org/publications)
The anti-union campaign touts corporate commitment to workers' voting rights. Yet many corporations are dedicated to insuring that workers' desires to form union never become the subject of elections. Lafer also points out: "Much of this employer behavior remains hidden." In 2004, a South Carolina manufacturer sued one of the country's preeminent labor law firms for advising illegal tactics in a campaign to oust the union. These included "spying on workers, firing union activists, organizing a bogus 'employee' anti-union committee, writing supposedly employee-authored fliers calling union activists 'trailer trash' and 'dog woman,' and supplying cash-filled envelopes to anti-union employees."
Even when they follow the law, corporate practice in so-called secret ballot labor representation elections falls short of minimal democratic standards. Workers do not enjoy free speech within their workplaces, may be forced to attend workshops where unions are denounced, and face unlimited expenditures by employers to advance their own interests.
Lafer points out that anti-union managers "can force individual employees into repeated, intimidating one-on-one conversations with their personal supervisors to make employees reveal their political leanings. Local supervisors are trained to read employees verbal and nonverbal reactions, and to ask indirect questions without explicitly asking employees how they will vote."
The last quarter-century has seen a well-publicized discussion of the difficult fiscal circumstances of U.S. workers. Corporate CEOs, often unaccountable even to stockholders and paid salaries many times that of any union leader, have mismanaged worker pensions and squandered corporate assets. Less noted has been the assault on the quality of workplace life itself.
Most workers here in Maine and nationally are "at will." They can be dismissed for any reason other than a few protected standards, such as race and gender. Workers who have been fortunate enough to achieve union status and to approve collective bargaining agreements are among the few who enjoy some protection against arbitrary power. Unions are the only worker-controlled organization elected by and accountable to workers. Not surprisingly, most polls over the last decade have shown that large numbers of workers desire an independent voice within their workplaces.
The Employee Free Choice Act gives workers the choice -- not the requirement -- that they can forego abusive, corporate-controlled election processes by pursuing unionization through a majority card check process. There is no union representation unless a majority signs. If a third prefer an election, they'll get an election. Unions will not prevail in such a process if "union bosses" harass reluctant workers. Such a strategy is neither likely nor effective in generating majority support.
A healthy union movement in Maine would neither cost jobs nor destroy progress. Research by University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin demonstrates that states with adequate minimum wage standards, public sector bargaining, and full rights to labor organization grow at least as fast as those where labor rights are repressed. In Maine historically many small businesses once depended on the prosperity and free time of their union member consumers. Countering the worst forms of employer attacks and presenting an image of and program for more humane workplaces is a vital task for those committed to a more just and prosperous Maine.