The Right to Organize

Steve Novick

The New York Times today has an excellent editorial on the Employee Free Choice Act, passed by the House but, unfortunately, unlikely to clear the Senate until we have sixty votes for working people in that august body. Here's the opening paragraph:

There are many reasons for the long decline in the membership rolls for private sector unions, including powerful changes in the economy and the unions’ past corruption scandals. And there is little doubt that federal rules and regulations for union organizing have also become increasingly hostile to labor, helping to drive unions’ share of the work force down from a peak of 35 percent in the 1950s to a mere 7.4 percent today.

Check out the rest as well. In fact, it might be worth your while to buy the Times today -- there's a whole mess of interesting stuff on trade, Hillary, British and Irish DNA, etc.

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    Tell it to Rich Lowry. He's already 'splained to the Oregonian readers (and all the other newspapers he's syndicated in) that unions are bad and that the secret ballot is the Republicans way of protecting the working man.

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    This piece does a great job of laying out the national problem. What's surprising is how rampant these abuses are here in Oregon, in 2007.

    In the past few weeks, I have spoken with Oregon workers who:

    • were forced into meetings with their supervisor, with someone blocking the exit door.
    • were told that they would be replaced with workers from out-of-state if they voted in a union.
    • were fired for trying to join a union.
    • were told that they had to take their bathroom breaks behind a tree. (Yes, this happened in Oregon, in 2007.)
    • were called "bitches, whiners and moaners" by their CEO for trying to form a union.


    The EFCA would go a long way toward restoring the freedom to organize. It also makes majority sign-up, which is already used with success here in Oregon and nationwide, the employees' choice rather than the employer's choice. That's more democratic than the current system.

  • Eric Berg (unverified)

    Just in case Steve's link doesn't work for you (it didn't for me), here's the editorial:

    I know there are many Blue Oregon regulars who don't understand, or even deep down agree with, the need for stronger unions. That is, other than the "At least they give money to Democrats and union members are more likely to vote Democratic..." I hear this all the time.

    The right of workers to organize and bargain collectively is central to anything "small-d democratic," big-D Democratic," "progressive," "liberal," "Blue," whatever. It's in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights for cryin' out loud. Ever notice how the first things any new dictatorship does are take over the press and ban unions?

    Anyway, I still have my doubts that, in the end, the Democratic majority in congress (and hopefully a Democratic president in 2009) will do little more than give the Employee Free Choice Act lip service or pass something so watered down it won't be much of an improvement over the current system. So far, though, I'm glad to see I'm wrong.

  • jessica (unverified)

    ...because everybody deserves a fair wage, family benefits, and a safer workplace. The right to collectively bargain is good for families, communities and the state.

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    Jeff up-thread makes a good point how the GOP have been busy with the preemptive hit about this, with the secret ballot" as a back-burn.

    OT: Steve, it was really good to have a chance to talk with you last Thursday at McMenamins' (Mitch Gore here) If you get a chance, shoot me an email. Would really like to talk more about what may happen around the mid April (April 18th-ish) timeframe.

  • DJ A-non (unverified)

    I'm all for making sure unions have a right to organize.

    But I'm uneasy about getting rid of the secret ballot. While it is true that companies can pressure and twist arms to "encourage" employees to vote no, unions can be equally "persuasive" in getting employees to sign a card and vote yes. As in, "sign this card and we'll make sure your home or car doesn't accidentially get trashed."

    I would prefer it if the entire process of unionization was conducted in a way that neither employers nor unions would ever know if any particular individual voted yes or no or signed some card or not.

    By all means give people the right to organize and vote to join a union, but I don't want to have to disclose to anyone, union or employer, how I intend to vote or how I voted, or whether I'm in favor or not in favor.

    I appreciate all the things unions have done and are still doing. However I think in general they are stuck in a 19th century, confrontational paradigm, which pre-supposes that the relationship between employer and employee must always be adversarial. It becomes a self fullfilling prophecy.

    That is one of the main reasons why many employers don't like unions. Not because they want to treat employees like shit. It's because they want to treat employees well and treat and think of them as team members, with everyone working towards the same objective, to make the company successfull. Often that is not possible in an adversarial relationship.

    They don't like unions because they don't want to be forced into and bogged down by a cumbersome adversarial process with their employees.

    You can say that the union - employer relationship doesn't have to be adversarial, but that is like Bush saying he can work with Democrats in a bipartisan way. As long as Democrats agree with him. Unions and employers can work in a non-adversarial way too, as long as employers agree with the union on everything.

  • Sargent (unverified)

    While it is true that companies can pressure and twist arms to "encourage" employees to vote no, unions can be equally "persuasive" in getting employees to sign a card and vote yes.

    Coersion is never OK, so let's look at the facts.

    Last week before the EFCA vote, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said that federal officials have found only 42 instances of union intimidation over the past 60 years, while employers have been cited more than 30,000 times.

    The NLRB election process is an unbelievably skewed playing field.

    Congressman Andrews debunked a bunch of the myths put out there by the bill's opponents, and you can see it here.

    It's worth the couple of minutes it takes to watch it.

  • Alan (unverified)

    The comments by "DJ A-non" repeat right-wing propaganda that has nothing to do with the realities of union organizing and the right wing attack on union rights and other rights. Many unions have perfectly sound relationships with their employers. If you think I'm talking about some sort of fantasy I read about, go ahead and check out which chronicles the nationwide collaborative relationship between Kaiser Permanente and most of the unions that represent the employees at Kaiser (including my Union, the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals). There are many more examples of such relationships in the U.S. and even more abroad of unions and corporations working together collaboratively for their mutual interest. Unfortunately many employers will violate whatever law and principle necessary in order to maintain complete power over their employees. That is why the Employee Free Choice Act is a vital step to return an internationally recognized human right to the U.S., the right to organize a union. This right is more and more one that we do not enjoy in the U.S. and it is disappointing that so many "progressives" in Oregon and the U.S. don't recognize is a major problem for our democracy.

  • DJ A-non (unverified)

    "Last week before the EFCA vote, Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said that federal officials have found only 42 instances of union intimidation over the past 60 years, while employers have been cited more than 30,000 times."

    Well, I'm sure most incidents of intimidation go unreported, so those kinds of stats don't mean much.

    I'm not out to demonize unions, and I don't claim to be an expert. I'm just your average moderate Democrat who isn't a union member and can see both sides of the issue. Maybe because I'm a middle manager and don't work in an industry that has traditionally been unionized.

    Certainly there are a lot of bad employers out there. But on the other hand, not every company is an evil robber baron.

    If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail.

  • (Show?)

    lestdalc - it's steve novick - i misplaced your email address - email me at [email protected]

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    Sargent wrote, federal officials have found only 42 instances of union intimidation over the past 60 years, while employers have been cited more than 30,000 times.

    DJ A-non wrote, Well, I'm sure most incidents of intimidation go unreported, so those kinds of stats don't mean much.

    Yeah, there's surely all kinds of underreporting. Which means the numbers are surely HIGHER.

    So, let's assume that only 99% of the incidents of union coercion go unreported. Ack, that'd be bad, eh? We'd have to multiply that number by 100. It still only gets you to 4200 incidents in 60 years -- about 70 a year, or 6 times a month, less than once a week in this entire vast nation of ours.

    If the employer coercion is actually not underreported at all... it's still 30,000 times in 60 years -- about 500 a year, or 42 times a month, or about 1.5 times per day.

    And that's if you assume that there's no underreporting on employer coercion! If you assume that employer coercion is also underreported 99% of the time, well, you'd have to multiply by 100. That's 150 times a day!

    Sure, the numbers may not be accurate as a raw number - but they're likely wrong in roughly the same way, as you suggested: underreporting.

    And that makes the argument for card-check right there.

  • Bruce (unverified)

    on the secret ballot issue. To organize a workplace, a National Labor Relations Board election takes place after cards are signed by a majority of workers. In this sense union members already are on record with the NLRB. Canadian workers can form a union by simply signing a card and we elect the Officers of the DPO with a card check method (you have to sign your ballot). The whole secret ballot issue is a ploy to keep the boss's foot on worker's neck.

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    I've been a frequent critic of unions on political issues, but this bill is about their core mission, unionizing workplaces.

    I've worked in (and with) some union crews and in a lot more non union crews. In four companies that were non-union when I got there and an organizing effort was attempted three of the CEOs were very hostile to the idea. Their refrain was identical:

    "If you try to organize I'll shut the whole thing down."

    In one case, an aggregate company in Bend, the owner did exactly that. Even those of us who were not involved in the organization effort were summarily dismissed and a crew of 75 employees on Friday was cut to a crew of eight of the boss's buddies on Monday. An ad was run in the paper for contract labor with (I kid you not) "no union ties". Illegal as Hell, but have to be able to afford to stand and fight, and I sure couldn't at the time.

    This was at a financially stressful part of my career, and my wife and I were forced to move to Portland where we slept in the truck (with my toolbox bolted into one corner of the truck bed) for a couple of weeks before I landed a job at a crane company on Columbia Blvd.


    So, personal blue collar experience has been that I've never been arm twisted by union guys, but I have been illegally fired for being "in the room" when the workers were trying to organize.....

  • T-Holden (unverified)

    Recently I was reminded that Saddam Hussein held secret ballots, he won every time.

    Under our present administration the NLRB is not a particularly pleasant atmosphere do to business.

    Let's not forget that even though you get organized it can still take years to get your first contract.

    Friendly companies sure so why would it bother them if the employees were organized?

    I'm sure that the President will veto this bill, just look at the concern over the V A hospitals and the treatmeant of our middle class soldiers after their deployment.


    "if Mr. Bush were, as he claims, truly concerned about rising income inequality and truly committed to improving the lives of America's middle class, he would support the legislation and urge the Senate to approve it."

  • Zarathustra (unverified)

    Well said, Kari, IMHO. Well said.

    That would be a great, yet vast, posting. All the topics about governing that should be taken out of debate and just done by the numbers. I'm serious. We never have the time to discuss the really ambiguous issues because special interests get to throw dust in everyones' eyes in obvious cases. Not worshiping numbers, just agree that when the opposition point is likely to be off by a few factors, there's better things to debate.

    Of course, how do you do that in a democracy when >50% of the population think that symbolic logic is an opinion with no more relevance towards deciding an argument than their gut feeling, where Brittany Spears, Henry Kissinger and a Blue Oregon reader have equal say in how we live.

    Unfortunately history hints that nations continue to be less competitive until they get invaded, enslaved and their new masters make them think logically.

  • Dan (unverified)

    "We understand that the secret ballot is allowed for, but not required, by Mexican labor law. However, we feel that the secret balot is absolutely necessary in order to ensure thta workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they might not otherwise choose."

    -- Representative (D)George Miller, (CA)

    This was printed in today's WSJ, page A16. It was a part of a letter that Miller wrote and signed, allong with 15 other Democrats, in 2001.

    Miller is the lead sponsor of the EFCA bill. Funny, do you think his opinion has changed now that it is union payback time?

    What do you think Steve?

  • Dan (unverified)

    Is my above quote from a letter from the democratic senator simply an "inconvenient truth"?

    Please don't hide behind the weak arguement that "things are different in Mexico", or "Senators are allowed to change their minds, aren't they?"


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