Stickin’ to the Union

ALBANY, NY – Local employees and union members show support for federal legislation that they claim would help unite workers. This story was first published in Metroland on May 28th, 2009.

Local unions and citizen activists staged a rally on May 21 at the Slingerlands Price Chopper to raise awareness for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). This legislation, which is currently pending in Congress, would make it easier for employees in all sectors to form and join unions. According to local labor leaders, the current system is broken.

“Basically, we have a Third World standard in regard to organizing,” said Guillermo Perez, president of the Capital Region chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. According to a report by Human Rights Watch titled “The Employee Free Choice Act—A Human Rights Imperative,” illegal, anti-union practices run rampant in the United States and are in violation of International Labour Organization standards, an organization to which the United States belongs.

According to Perez, this is how current attempts to unionize typically work: An employee who wishes to start a union will begin the process of organizing; when management catches wind of this they use scare tactics to discourage the activity; and often the issue ends with the employee being terminated. Meanwhile, other employees at the place of business are subjected to interrogations, surveillance and intimidation. Perez said that employers tiptoe around the law in an effort to suppress union activity.

According to Perez, if an employee is fired for trying to organize a union, it often takes years for that person to regain back pay. When they do, any money that they made at other jobs in the meantime will be deducted from their settlement. The rigmarole of this process makes unionizing very unattractive for workers who are thinking about doing so.

Employers would rather break the law and receive the penalty than see union activity at their business, said Perez. “It’s just the cost of doing business for employers.”

If the EFCA is passed, supporters say that it will bolster the current legislation under the National Labor Relations Act by imposing steeper penalties and sanctions on businesses that violate the law, turning anti-union practices into something that doesn’t make much business sense.

The reason Price Chopper was targeted is because CEO Neil Golub is the most vocal and powerful opponent of the legislation in the area, according to Martha Schultz, who is with the Labor-Religion Coalition of the Capital Region. Schultz said that Golub is leading a campaign against the EFCA by holding court with various municipalities’ chambers of commerce and telling them that the legislation would be bad for business.

While Schultz tipped her cap to Golub’s considerable charity efforts, she said it has nothing to do with workers’ rights.

“I know that Neil Golub is a philanthropist, but justice is different from charity,” she said. “His policies need to change because they are anti-worker. His opposition to [the EFCA] is in his best interest, but he’s convincing other people it wouldn’t be in their best interest when it would improve workers’ quality of life and stimulate the local economy.”

Detractors of the bill say that its passage would enable union organizers to coerce employees into joining unions. They also say that the bill would obliterate an employee’s right to a private vote because under the EFCA, unionization is voted upon by way of a public ballot.

Calls to Golub Corp. were not returned.

Becky Wallace used to work at the Holiday Inn in Latham. She would get up early for the morning breakfast shift and sometimes stay later to do some housekeeping. On April 23, she was fired. A couple days earlier, she said, she was coming out of a union meeting at a local sandwich shop when her manager saw her.

“They let me work the whole day,” said Wallace with a wry laugh. Wallace said the next morning she was cleaning a room when her manager told her that she was being fired. A couple of hours later, another union committee member was fired. Only three of the original seven union committee members remain employed at the Holiday Inn.

“It’s like they were whittling us down,” she said. “I never thought I would lose my job, but I did. I’m not going anywhere, though. I’m still going to fight to get a union.”

A recent study done by a Cornell University professor found that in 34 percent of union-organizing elections, employers fired pro-union workers. The study, which was based on 1,004 election records from the National Labor Relations Board, also revealed that employers threatened to shut down plants in 57 percent of the elections and threatened to cut wages and benefits in 47 percent of the elections.

The author of the study, Kate Bronfenbrenner, is director of labor education research at Cornell University. She said it is impossible to be neutral on this issue, but her research methods were of the highest methodological standards. The study, “No Holds Barred—The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing,” is likely to be a centerpiece in the fight to get the legislation passed through Congress.

Perez and others anticipate surges in union membership if the EFCA is passed. According to Bronfenbrenner, the majority of U.S. workers want to join unions but are scared off by aggressive anti-union practices by employers.

“This law is gaining traction now,” said Perez, “because there is an understanding that we need to restore the middle class.”

About Daniel Fitzsimmons

Staff writer for the Manhattan weeklies Our Town, Our Town Downtown and the West Side Spirit.
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