Rights and Wrongs: Protecting the Freedom of Association in the American Workplace

Machinist Verna Baden, a 72-year-old grandmother from my hometown of Detroit, was fired in 1992 with five others after they voted to form a union at Taylor Machine Products. It took the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency charged with enforcing U.S. labor law, 11 years to order the company to provide back pay and interest for illegally firing Baden and her co-workers. But, the company has successfully used the appellate process to further delay justice for Baden. To date, she still has not received over $100,000 that she's owed to compensate for her wrongful termination.

Every day in the United States, workers like Baden are threatened, secretly observed by their employers, and fired simply for expressing a desire to form unions and collectively negotiate the terms and conditions of their employment. Research conducted by academic institutions and international organizations such as Human Rights Watch have found that at least 10,000 workers are terminated or discriminated against each year for participating in union organizing activity. In the 1950s, workers who suffered reprisals for exercising the freedom of association numbered in the hundreds each year.

As board chair of American Rights at Work, a new workers' rights advocacy organization, I've heard from hundreds of workers across the country who must make the impossible choice between having a voice in the workplace — often at tremendous personal and professional risk — or accepting no job security, stagnant pay, eroding benefits and unsafe working conditions in order to maintain their employment.

This dangerous reality is not an isolated incident, but a growing trend in corporate America to prevent or undermine unions. According to Cornell University's Kate Brofenbrenner, 75 percent of employers hire consultants to help them fight union organizing drives. A staggering 92 percent of employers force employees to attend mandatory captive audience meetings where workers often must listen to hours of anti-union presentations by corporate representatives. Additionally, 78 percent of corporations force their employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with managers. Seventy percent mail anti-union letters to workers' homes.

As American workers grow more vulnerable to corporate anti-union campaigns, statutory protections are in danger of being diminished. Earlier this month, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that it will review a case that reconsiders the long-used practice of forming a union through voluntary recognition.

In this process, companies agree to recognize a union that has collected signature cards from a majority of workers indicating their desire to join, without forcing workers to go through potentially contentious elections.

In a startling move, three members of the five-person NLRB asserted "the superiority of Board supervised secret-ballot elections," a procedure that often gives employers more time to implement illegal campaign behavior, including firing workers for union activity. Meanwhile, citing the board's own 1966 decision (Keller Plastics Eastern, Inc= 157 N.L.R.B. 583, 61 LRRM 1396), the two dissenting board members stated that the "recognition bar has stood the test of time. To revisit it serves no purpose but to undermine a principle that has been endorsed time and again by the Board and the courts."

Developments such as these confirm that protecting the right to organize and collectively bargain is not simply a workplace issue, but an urgent crisis linked to the preservation of democracy, ideals of justice and fair play, and the economic security of American families and communities. The benefits of unions are clear and have far reaching social advantages. Economic Policy Institute researchers have found that unions raise the wages of their members by roughly 20 percent. While 83 percent of unionized workers have employer-provided health insurance, only 62 percent of non-unionized workers have such a benefit. Additionally, unionized workers are 24.4 percent more likely to receive health insurance coverage in their retirement; and, are 54 percent more likely to have pension coverage.

By attempting to form unions and negotiate contracts, workers are advancing race and gender equality in the workplace, combating poverty, and protecting the environment by setting higher health and safety standards. Maria Perla, a housekeeper and active union organizer in San Francisco, said, "I was scared of the threats, but not anymore. I'm willing to take the risk. It's worth it."

It's time we all stood with workers and acknowledged that their freedom to form unions and collectively bargain without enduring intimidation, harassment, and the threat of termination by their employers are rights — not privileges — that must be upheld. Just as in the past when we have stood as a nation and called out wrong doing, today we must use our voices to preserve high labor standards, especially in U.S.-bound industries that are now in jeopardy of leaving our nation's borders. We must also strengthen U.S. labor law to vigorously enforce existing codes that protect workers' from employer reprisals, and penalize corporate offenders in a manner that deters the infringement on the statutory and human rights of their employees.

David Bonior is chair of American Rights at Work.