Worker rights are human rights, legislators told

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A State Capitol forum Monday afforded lawmakers the opportunity to hear workers describe the intimidation, harassment and uphill battle they face in trying to organize unions at their workplaces.

The forum, coordinated by the Minnesota AFL-CIO on International Human Rights Day, illustrated the importance of the Employee Free Choice Act, labor-backed, federal legislation that would level the playing field between workers and employers during organizing drives.

The AFL-CIO, Minnesota’s largest grassroots organization, framed the legislation as a human-rights issue, hoping to convince members of the Minnesota House of Representatives to follow the lead of the Senate, which passed a resolution supporting Employee Free Choice last session.

Rep. Jim Davnie, who moderated the forum, called the right to form unions part and parcel of such inherent rights as “the right to free speech, the right to free assembly and the right to redress grievances.”

But as the workers’ stories proved, those inherent rights often wind up trampled by employers eager to pad their bottom lines.

Case study: Walker Methodist
Jesse Steen, a nursing assistant at Walker Methodist Health Center in Minneapolis, talked about his co-workers’ five-year struggle to gain recognition of their union – a victory finally realized last spring.

Walker, Steen said, waged a lengthy “campaign of appeals” to the National Labor Relations Board after workers overwhelmingly voted to affiliate with AFSCME in 2002. The NLRB rejected all of the employer’s appeals, but they served to delay efforts to negotiate a first contract for union members.

What’s more, the appeals also bought the employer time to intimidate workers into reconsidering their votes.

“People were fired,” Steen said. “People were called into captive meetings. Many people recall friends and co-workers who were in support of the union, who were working one day and the next day they were gone.”

That “climate of fear,” Steen said, contributed to a 70 percent turnover rate among Walker’s employees, the majority of whom are African immigrants, including a large number of refugees.

Steen remembered one co-worker telling him, “When you punch the clock at Walker, you’re punching out on the Constitution.”

“Is this the way we want to treat immigrants and refugees?” Steen asked. “Is this the example we want to set?”

Majority sign-up
Things would have been a lot different at Walker Methodist had the Employee Free Choice Act been law. For starters, Walker workers would have had the option of bypassing the NLRB election process – and the subsequent string of appeals. Instead, the Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers to form unions when a majority of employees sign cards authorizing union representation.

That same process served clerical workers at Hennepin County Medical Center well two years ago. Carmen Brown, a 13-year clerical worker at HCMC, praised the county’s decision to recognize workers’ union after a majority of workers signed authorization cards.

Hennepin County “allowed us to bring forth a union without the employer interfering,” Brown said. “It was a freedom of choice. Within three weeks over 50 percent of clerical workers had signed up, and today life is 100 percent better.”

The Employee Free Choice Act also would impose stiff penalties – up to $20,000 – on employers for intimidating, firing or otherwise violating the rights of employees working to form unions.

First contract guaranteed
Last but not least, the legislation would prevent employers like Walker Methodist from delaying contract negotiations with newly formed unions.

If an employer and union fail to reach an agreement within 90 days of a certification vote, the Employee Free Choice Act would provide mediation and, if necessary, binding arbitration to secure a first contract for the new union.

Sean McVay, a representative of Communications Workers of America Local 7201, said that provision would have helped his union five years ago, when Local 7201 won an NLRB election at AT&T Broadband but lost a decertification vote two years later, thanks in large part to a series of stalling maneuvers by the company now known as Comcast.

At the close of the State Capitol forum, McVay pointed to a banner strung in the hearing room with a quotation from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to form and join trade unions.”

“The next sentence after that is not, ‘If they can get a first contract,'” McVay said.

Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Trades & Labor Assembly. Visit the Assembly’s website, www.stpaulunions.org

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