Magazine article The Christian Century

Getting Organized

Magazine article The Christian Century

Getting Organized

Article excerpt

IMAGINE BEING a single parent who works as a nursing assistant at a hospital. You love your job, though your wages are only $9.50 per hour. The hospital gives you health insurance for yourself, but not your two children. Health insurance for your children would cost $200 more per month--which you can't afford. The worst thing about your job is your schedule. You never know ahead of time what shift you will be working, which makes it impossible to coordinate after-school care for your children. To get better health insurance and a regular work schedule, among other benefits, you and your co-workers decide to organize a union.

The next thing that happens is your supervisor calls you in for a private talk to say that the union is a bad idea and that he hopes you won't support it. There is nothing overtly coercive about the meeting, but your supervisor does have the power to fire you, set your work schedule, deny requests for vacation days and review your work performance.

Then you are offered a better work schedule if you agree to speak out against the union. Given your family situation, this is tempting. A week before the union election, one of the main supporters of the union is fired. You are terrified of losing your job.

This is the kind of environment many workers face when they seek to organize a union. Studies have shown that during a union organizing drive, 90 percent of employers force employees to attend one-on-one antiunion meetings with their supervisors. Thirty percent of employers

illegally fire pro-union workers during union drives. And over half of employers use bribes or special favors to illegally coerce workers into opposing unions.

In response to concerns about workers' ability to organize, the U.S. House of Representatives in March passed the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill, now being considered in the Senate, aims to give workers greater freedom to organize, provide arbitration so that workers and management can secure a contract, and discourage employers from violating labor laws.

A major provision of the bill would allow workers to be represented by a union if more than 50 percent of them sign union authorization cards. This process is often referred to as the card-check process. Companies would then be required, as they are under current law, to negotiate in good faith with the union.

Currently, when workers sign cards indicating that they would like to be represented by a union, the cards are presented to the employer, who can either recognize the union and negotiate a contract or arrange for an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. The election is usually scheduled several months away.

Although some employers do recognize a union and negotiate a contract after the majority of their workers sign union cards, many more choose the election route. Employers then can use the time before the election to campaign against the union. Because most workers can be fired "at will," there is little open and democratic debate at the workplace about the values of having or not having a union. Workers are often harassed about their support for unions, barraged with antiunion literature and videos, threatened either individually (many union supporters are fired) or collectively (employers threaten to close companies if they become unionized), and penalized in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

A second provision of the bill requires mediation and then binding arbitration for first contracts in cases in which the union and management can't reach agreement within a reasonable time period. …

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