The Assault on Workers’
Rights — Neglected
By News Media, But Real
It wasn’t on the evening news or front-page of your daily newspaper. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real, or that
the facts aren’t there. A recent United States Senate hearing highlighted the story the news media chose not to report: the human rights
emergency facing workers who try to organize.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on June 20 heard testimony that described in vivid detail the
obstacles workers face in trying to organize unions where they work. Witnesses reported that workers’ basic rights are routinely
violated in the U.S. because labor law is feebly enforced and filled with loopholes.
FIRST HEARING IN 15 YEARS
The hearing was the first on Capitol Hill in 15 years to deal with this crisis. But only three reporters were in the
Recognizing that "the right to freedom of association is seriously under threat in the United States," Human
Rights Watch compiled a major report on the issue, said Ken Roth, executive director (See UE News Feature: Workers' Rights Under Attack (November, 2000)). The right to organize unions is
specifically guaranteed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the U.S. has ratified — except for the union
The study found "widespread violations of the right to form unions and bargain collectively," he said. Although
it is supposedly illegal for employers to threaten workers, employers "are extraordinarily skilled at predicting terrible
consequences" should they exercise their right to organize, Roth said. "U.S. law allows employers to intimidate and coerce
workers when they try to organize." Employers are allowed to keep employees in captive-audience meetings to give anti-union talks.
'ROUTINE BUSINESS EXPENSE'
Thousands of workers who attempt to organize their co-workers are fired each year — in 1998, employers illegally fired
23,000, Roth pointed out. Many employers view the minor penalties involved in this lawbreaking as routine business expenses.
In his remarks to the committee, headed by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), AFL-CIO Pres. John Sweeney,
confirmed that employers’ anti-union tactics frequently include threats to close or relocate plants if organizing succeeds, mandatory
anti-union meetings and illegal firings.
Several workers testified on the basis of their own experience, among them:
• Nancy Schweikhard, a registered nurse, said that during an organizing campaign she was subjected to several
one-on-one meetings with management in which she was instructed not to discuss the union with other employees. She was also told her
performance evaluation had been downgraded because of her union activity.
• Mario Vidales told the committee that he had been beaten by 10 men when he tried to organize the Las Vegas
restaurant where he worked.
• As a supervisor at a North Carolina packing plant, Sherri Buffkin knowingly signed false affidavits with regard
to the discharge of pro-union workers. She carried out orders to deny benefits to union supporters and to hold separate meetings for black
and Hispanic workers.
THE RIGHT TO ORGANIZE
At a press conference prior to the hearing, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D., Minn.) announced his interest in
crafting right-to-organize legislation that would penalize employers who fire union organizers, expedite representation elections, give
unions an equal voice, and outlaw employers’ refusal to sign contracts once ratified.
These are similar to some of the recommendations made by Human Rights Watch in its 2000 study Unfair Advantage, which also called for "Stronger
NLRB-ordered and court-ordered remedies" when employers refuse to bargain in good faith, and first-contract arbitration where workers
are deprived of their right to bargain freely.
That kind of legislative reform would bring peace to communities like North East, Pa., where The Electric Materials Co. (TEMCO)
has created bitterness and ill-feeling through its illegal resistance to a first contract with UE Local 684. The National Labor Relations
Board has issued more than 50 charges against the company for violations of federal labor law. A lengthy trial before an NLRB
administrative law judge was completed earlier this year, with a decision yet to be rendered.
'THE ONLY WAY TO HAVE A REAL SAY'
In a letter published in local newspapers in June, Local 684 leader Crystal Pratt discussed the company’s
obstructions and concluded, "Despite all these difficulties, I know the union is the answer since it is the only way we, the workers,
have a real say over our lives and what’s best for our families."
The determination of Local 684 members to win a contract is the kind of story that, under different circumstances, one
could imagine on television. But like other reports from the human rights emergency that is labor law in the U.S., it is unlikely to be on
prime time soon.