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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Norma Rae, why's it so hard?
By ROBYN BLUMNER
Published February 18, 2007
During the summer of my first year of law school, I was employed as a law clerk by District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Manhattan. It was a great job that allowed me to train under some generous and talented union lawyers. But, on one of my first days on the job, I was asked whether I would cross a picket line.
Because the union was so large, the secretarial staff had been organized by an outside union, and labor negotiations were on the cusp of breaking down. DC 37 was about to be struck and it wanted its employees to defy the pickets and continue working. (I said no way.)
Thankfully those events never came to pass. But I relay them to illustrate that I know from personal experience that unions are not perfect. I've seen rigid, counterproductive, self-preserving and even corrupt behavior by some of the more than a dozen unions I have dealt with in my professional life. Still, I know of no system better at getting workers a fair shake on the job.
Just compare the benefits accruing to union versus nonunion workers: Median weekly wages for union workers are 30 percent higher, and unionized workers can expect far more in terms of fringe benefits including health care, pensions, disability insurance and vacation time. But, perhaps most valuably, unions bring job security.
Unionized workers generally cannot be fired at the whim of management or because they are getting expensive due to their many years on the job. (The notoriously antiunion Wal-Mart suggested in an internal memo that workers who stay on the job year after year are unduly driving up labor costs. Jeesh.)
With all this going for it and polls showing that 60-million American workers who are not unionized would like to be, why are union rates dropping?
In a phrase: Union-busting.
It used to be that employers would take this phrase literally, using Pinkerton agents to bust the heads of union organizers. Today's equivalents are the legions of consultants who are enlisted by almost every company that thinks it is about to be unionized. These hired guns come with fancy law degrees, but their mission is the same as the muscle - to cow employees into rejecting the union.
In a hearing before a House subcommittee, Keith Ludlum, a veteran of Desert Storm, told his story about being fired by Smithfield's Tar Heel, N.C., hog slaughter and pork processing plant after he attempted to organize his fellow workers.
Ludlum described the dangerous conditions at the plant. He said a fellow worker in his 50s broke his leg by having it pinned between an electric pallet jack and a concrete wall, then had to come to work the next day or get fired. The company provided no sick days, according to Ludlum, and didn't want to have to report the injury to OSHA.
Smithfield says it has no record of that incident and has a good safety record. But the company admitted that it offers no paid sick leave and that it "made mistakes" in the way it responded to union organizing at the plant.
Ludlum said that when the whiff of unionism was in the air, Smithfield viciously fought back. Findings by the National Labor Relations Board confirm an illegal campaign of coercion and intimidation. In 2004, the board ordered Smithfield to stop firing employees and threatening them with physical assault and other reprisals for their union support.
Stories like this are remarkably common. Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, says that one in four employers discharge employees for union activities.
Clearly, current law isn't protective enough of today's Norma Raes. So, what's to be done?
Worker-friendly members of Congress have lined up behind the Employee Free Choice Act - a measure that passed a House committee on Wednesday. It would substantially increase penalties on employers who act against employee organizers. Also, the bill would give workers the ability to authorize a union if a majority sign up for one, rather than through an election.
Employers use the election process as a delaying tactic. Between the time that a bulk of workers say they want a union by signing certification cards and the election, consultants are hired and the threats start flying.
America's story of widening income inequality is also the story of its shrinking unions. When workers have no say, they take the crumbs that are offered.