With the economy heading into recession, it’s more important than ever workers achieve job security and receive the compensation they’re entitled. A proposed federal law would help them do just that by making the process of organizing a union fairer. Maine Sen. Susan Collins filibustered this law last year even though it won bipartisan votes in both houses of Congress.
In September, I was part of a delegation from Food AND Medicine, a Brewer-based workers’ rights group, meeting with Collins to urge her to support the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) when it’s reintroduced in Congress next year. I was chosen as part of the delegation because I have personal experience with the huge obstacles that, under present law, stand between workers and the improved pay, benefits, community and dignity of a union.
Several years ago I was part of the effort to organize my workplace, the DHL delivery office in Brewer. Since 70 percent of the workers signed up to have a union, the Employee Free Choice Act and common sense would say we should have had one. But under present law, the employer had the right to delay the process about 45 days and demand a vote.
It was during those 45 days that the injustice of the current system revealed itself. The employer has you all day and can make you listen to anti-union lawyers, watch anti-union films, and have pressuring one-on-one meetings with supervisors. The company raises fears that your job and economic life are in jeopardy if the union is established. Meanwhile, the union representatives cannot enter the workplace and can only ask for workers to please attend a meeting after work. It is about as fair as an election in Zimbabwe.
Despite these pressure tactics, the union still won the election at DHL — by a single vote. So we had our union then, right? Wrong! Rather than deal with an organized workforce, DHL shut the office, laid everyone off, contracted out the service to another company and required all the former workers to reapply for their jobs.
The new company broke the law by openly refusing to hire anyone they knew was pro-union. At the interviews they asked how I voted; one interviewer reached over and flipped up my lapel to see if it hid a union button.
We hit the street with picket signs: 72 paces down and 72 back in the snow, sleet and rain of early spring. We received a great deal of support from the community, local unions, most of the Democratic state representatives and three Republican state senators. Democratic congressmen Mike Michaud and Tom Allen gave us their support. One of our group, a staunch Republican, asked for support from Sens. Olympia Snowe and Collins offices, but we received none.
Our unfair labor practice case was fast-tracked by the National Labor Relations Board because the offenses were so blatant, but it still took 13 miserable, financially distressing, soaking wet weeks of uncertainty to win a simple case. And despite the outpouring of community support, it was one of the most troubling times of my life.
The Employee Free Choice Act will fix this broken system. It will allow workers to organize a union the same way snowmobilers organize a club or congregants form a church — by talking to one another, expressing support for the idea, and indicating their willingness to participate. It will also increase penalties for violations of labor law such as I suffered in order to make them more than a “cost of doing business” for unscrupulous employers and ensure a fair first contract through arbitration.
Sen. Collins and the other Employee Free Choice Act opponents’ argument that workers will somehow be coerced into joining unions is not credible. One study found that nearly “four times as many workers reported that management coerced them as opposed to the union.” (See briefing paper at http://dll.umaine.edu/ble/.)
Food AND Medicine presented Sen. Collins with a giant petition supporting the Employee Free Choice Act signed by 330 people, yet it seemed to have no effect on her. She seemed more interested in her party’s position than in the interest of working families of Eastern Maine. Once again we urge Sen. Collins to either support the act or go out to talk to workers about the reality of organizing a union in today’s workplace. She might learn what I’ve learned — the playing field is far from even and management holds way too much power. That’s wrong and we need some positive change.
Steve Husson was Teamster shop steward for DHL’s Brewer station. He is the special projects coordinator for Food AND Medicine.