Dec. 9, 2003, 9:44PM
Observe right to unionize by making it reality By PAT YOUNGBLOOD and ROBERT JENSEN
Fifty-five years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights set forth basic standards for what many hoped would be a new world emerging from the devastation of World War II and the horrors of colonialism. Among the rights articulated in that document is, "to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."
This was in line with U.S. law; the 1935 National Labor Relations Act declared it the nation's policy to encourage "the practice and procedure of collective bargaining" and protect "the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection."
Unfortunately, the principle on the books is not the typical workplace reality in the United States today. Existing laws are inadequate, and employers routinely violate even those.
As the world today observes Human Rights Day, Americans should heed the conclusion of a Human Rights Watch report in 2000: "[W]orkers' freedom of association is under sustained attack in the United States, and the government is often failing its responsibility under international human rights standards to deter such attacks and protect workers' rights."
A study by a leading labor researcher, Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, found that when faced with employees who want to join a union, 92 percent of private employers force workers to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda; 78 percent require that supervisors deliver anti-union messages to workers they oversee; and 75 percent hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns.
The negative effect on communities is widely felt; a 2000 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that American families, on average, work 247 more hours per year than they did in 1989.
Workers whose rights have been violated can try to use the law to fight back, but these days that's a thin reed on which to lean. Business owners know that the federal government long ago abandoned serious enforcement, and cases brought before the National Labor Relations Board can drag on for years before workers get justice.
One simple way to give workers more meaningful organizing rights would be to establish the right of workers to start a union through the "card check" process. If a majority of workers sign a form authorizing union representation, the company would have to recognize the union. Under current law, companies can ignore the workers' wishes and demand an NLRB election, which gives managers the opportunity to engage in coercive anti-union activities and create an atmosphere of fear.
Legislation introduced in Congress last month, called the "Employee Free Choice Act," would give workers the right to unionize through card check, as well as provide mediation and arbitration for first contract disputes, and establish stronger penalties for violation of employee rights during organizing drives and first contract negotiations.
Such a law is hardly radical; it's a small step toward reversing the assault on workers' rights in this country and bringing the United States closer to basic international norms. In addition to the Universal Declaration, such norms are also articulated in the "Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work" of the International Labor Organization, an independent United Nations agency of which the United States is a member. That document states that member nations have an obligation "to respect, to promote and to realize, in good faith" four key principles, the first of which is "freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining."
The key term is "effective" -- rights in the abstract mean little to workers who are coerced into abandoning a union campaign or fired for organizing activities. It's time for the United States to make those rights real for all workers.
Youngblood is coordinator and Jensen is on the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin.
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
Dec. 10, 2003, 10:24PM
Unions call for help to organize
WASHINGTON -- Several hundred union members rallied outside the Labor Department on Wednesday, calling for tougher laws to protect American workers and denouncing the Bush administration for what they said were anti-union policies.
The rally was one of more than 90 events in 38 states designed to call attention to hurdles workers face when trying to form unions.
Shawn Franklin, a Transportation Security Administration airport screener at the rally, cannot bargain as part of a union for pay and work conditions because government officials said such actions would be incompatible with the war on terror.
"I have a right to free speech and to free association because the Constitution tells me so," Franklin said.
Just 13.2 percent of the U.S. work force belongs to a union, an all-time low.
Labor leaders say they have been unable to stop the steady decline because employers are more aggressive and sophisticated about fighting unions. Penalties are weak for breaking laws that are supposed to protect workers' rights to form unions, they say.
But Randy Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for labor policy, said new laws will not reverse unions' decline.
"Moving away from the shopworn rhetoric of the 1930s and creating an agenda and program relevant to today's work force will do more to add to union membership rolls" than new laws, he said.
In downtown Seattle, a couple hundred union members demonstrated outside the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building.
"We want the federal government to know that the right to organize is ours, and don't mess with it. It's that simple," said Jeff Butler, a member of Iron Workers Local 86.
In Houston, Wal-Mart employee Larry Lee says that since he started talking about forming a union a few months ago, he has been assigned to work alone in areas of the store away from his co-workers and is monitored when he walks to his car or goes to the bathroom.
But he is continuing to try. "The worst thing you can do is not try," said Lee, 42, who stocks shelves at night in a Houston store. "I'm dead serious about what I'm doing here. I'm committed to what I'm doing here."
Wal-Mart Stores spokeswoman Christi Gallagher said she was unaware of Lee's situation, and the company "does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind."
Wal-Mart has an "open door policy" that encourages employees to talk with managers at any level, including the chief executive, about all concerns and ideas, "without fear of retaliation," she said.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, speaking in New York, said the freedom to organize a union "is at the heart of economic justice. It's just as precious as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and we're going to fight for it."
The AFL-CIO is pushing for legislation that would eliminate National Labor Relations Board elections and certify a union after a majority signs authorization cards. It also would increase penalties for employers that intimidate or fire workers for union activity.
But the bills, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., stand no chance of passage in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle
Dec. 12, 2003, 1:03AM
WORKING Doing well, yet doing poorly at Pasadena Paper Co.
By L.M. SIXEL
IN the last four months, the Pasadena Paper Co. has been breaking records. Productivity is high. Environmental discharges have dipped. Product quality is good.
"In any kind of a normal world, we'd be doing very well today, despite high energy costs," General Manager Fred Row said.
But it's not a normal world at the coated paper plant, nor at its competitors around the nation, as it struggles to compete with a flood of cheap Asian imports.
So much paper is coming from China and South Korea that those imports now control U.S. prices.
That's hurting plants like Pasadena Paper, which employs 320 and makes Campbell Soup labels as well as paper for book jackets and glossy magazines.
"You can't make a living," said Row, who blames the artificially depressed Chinese and Korean currencies as well as essentially free money they get to finance the capital-intensive business.
He estimates that his prices are down about 20 percent from two years ago.
Like much of the free-trade battle, buyers of paper are no doubt benefiting from the drop in prices.
But it spells trouble for the manufacturers, the employers who provide some of the best-paying jobs in a community.
The plant isn't in imminent danger of closing because Belgravia Paper Co., the Canadian owner, has taken a long-term view, he said.
"But unless it changes, that's the end point," Row said.
That's what worries J.C. Johnson, a locomotive operator and executive vice president of PACE International Union Local 4-1, which represents the Pasadena Paper employees.
He remembers what happened when the plant was downsized in 1999: 500 employees lost their jobs, two people killed themselves, several marriages broke up, and many former employees had to take low-level jobs with no benefits.
"We don't want to see that happen again," he said. "If the company isn't successful, we're not successful."
In fact, to make the plant work, the new owner shut down the pulp-making section that Row said was old, inefficient and "stunk up Pasadena."
It also cut the wages 10 percent for the remaining 320 workers. While a new profit-sharing plan was intended to make up the gap, the flood of cheap paper has meant the profit-sharing checks have come to a halt for the workers, who earn an average of $18.50 an hour.
But union members worry that might not be enough to make the company viable in today's tough environment.
"If foreign companies keep sending paper over here cheaper than we can make, it's a serious threat," said Glen Dodd, an electrician at the plant and vice chairman of the union's negotiating group.
It's also a big concern at the trade association that represents more than 200 companies in the pulp and paper industry.
China fixed its currency to the U.S. dollar a decade ago and, consequently, buys a lot of dollars, said Jacob Handelsman, senior director of international trade for the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, D.C.
That boosts the demand for U.S. dollars, which in turn increases their value, he said. But when the U.S. dollar is high relative to other currencies, products made in the United States are more expensive overseas. And, conversely, U.S. shoppers prefer foreign-made products because they're cheaper.
All that foreign currency sloshing around China also means there's plenty of money to lend and, therefore, interest rates are low, Handelsman said. Pulp and paper makers have taken advantage of those low rates by building manufacturing capacity and are exporting what they can't absorb.
The industry is so capital-intensive that if someone has access to cheap financing, it can sell products at much lower prices, he said.
Back in Pasadena, Row sees what happens when good manufacturing jobs disappear.
"Yeah, we're going to Wal-Mart. Yeah, we're going to McDonald's," he said. "But not many people can afford to buy homes with those kind of jobs."
"I always get so emotional," he said, banging on the table twice. "It's not that we're in the buggy whip business."
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Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle