Esquire’s American of the Year: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka
NOTE: Two years ago, we asked Richard Trumka, former Mine Workers President and then-AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, for a Labor Day message. Monday, he was named Esquire Magazine’s American of the Year - so it seemed right to take another look at that message, which resonates even more today.
Dianne Heeley, of North Reading, Mass., was an area trainer for Fotomat in nearby Woburn when she and nearly all the employees in the district office decided to form a union. Says Heeley:
We noticed that there was about 100 percent turnover in management every year. We organized for job security because we thought that if the company would get rid of its own managers on a regular basis, none of us employees had any guarantee of a job.
The workers voted to join the union, but management kept up its anti-union campaign, pulling them into the office and threatening them, says Heeley.
A lot of people fell for it. I remember watching them go into the office one by one, and when they came out, they were really scared. They knew I was pro-union, and they wouldn’t even make eye contact with me.
But the company’s anti-union tactics won the prize management coveted the most: The workers never got a contract.
If the proposed Employee Free Choice Act was law, employees such Heeley and her co-workers would have a contract because management would not be allowed to destroy the union by never reaching a contract.
We in the union movement have been fighting to make the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land because it would enable working people to bargain for better benefits, wages and working conditions by restoring workers’ freedom to choose for themselves whether to join a union.
Specifically, it would:
* Remove current obstacles for employees who want collective bargaining.
* Guarantee that workers who can choose collective bargaining are able to achieve a contract.
* Allow employees to form unions by signing cards authorizing union representation.
America’s working people want the opportunity to form unions without harassment from their employers. Some 60 million Americans say they would join a union if they could and nearly four in five — 78 percent — adults favor legislation that would make it easier for workers to bargain with their employers. And for good reason: Workers who belong to unions earn 28 percent more than nonunion workers. They are 52 percent more likely to have employer-provided health coverage and nearly three times more likely to have guaranteed pensions.
Yet since the nation’s labor laws were enacted in the 1930s and amended in the 1940s, U.S. employers have found many new ways to prevent workers from forming unions. And they are willing to spend just about any amount of money to do so. Union-busting is a $4 billion industry in the United States. When faced with a group of workers who want to form a union, U.S. employers all too often turn to these so-called “consultants” who, for a steep price, provide them with all the dirty tricks they can undertake inside and outside the law.
Cornell University scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner studied hundreds of organizing campaigns and her findings show that among private-sector employers:
* 78 percent force employees to attend one-on-one meetings against the union with their own supervisors.
* 51 percent threaten to close the plant if the union wins the National Labor Relations Board election.
* 75 percent hire consultants or union-busters to help them fight union organizing drives.
It gets worse. A study released in March showed that every time workers try to exercise their freedom to form a union, there’s a better than one-in-five chance a union activist will be illegally fired as a result.
Opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act have launched a $200 million campaign to defeat it. Working through front groups with innocuous-sounding names like the Center for Union Facts, organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and giant corporations are bombarding the airwaves and filling major newspapers with pricey advertisements designed to turn public opinion against the proposed legislation. More crucially, their lobbyists are deluging lawmakers in Congress with repeated visits and contacts to pressure them into voting against the bill when it comes up this year.
The opposition to unions by big-moneyed corporations in the United States can’t be overstated. In a recent issue of In These Times, Art Levine gives us a blow-by-blow account of a seminar he attended in Las Vegas led by two attorneys from Jackson Lewis, one of the major law firms in the field of union-busting. Union-busting — the so-called “union avoidance” industry — involves more than 2,500 lawyers.
Levine summarizes some of what was said:
* If a supervisor sympathizes with the workers who want to form a union, one of the lawyers jerks his tie upward against his neck to suggest a hanging.
* Tell employees stories about other workers in a union going on strike and losing their jobs to replacements because “It’s lawful. What happens if this statement is a lie? They didn’t have another strike, there were no replacements? It’s still lawful: The labor board doesn’t really care if people are lying.”
* Firing workers for seeking to form a union is illegal under current labor law, so Jackson-Lewis encourages employers to make sure they fire union supporters for other reasons.
This fall, when Congress gets set to vote on the Employee Free Choice Act, they must remember America’s working families want the choice to form unions. They don’t have it now.
The youngest secretary-treasurer in AFL-CIO history, Richard L. Trumka was first elected to the post in October 1995 at the age of 46. Born in Nemacolin, Pa., on July 24, 1949, Trumka was elected to the AFL-CIO Executive Council in 1989. At the time of his election to secretary-treasurer, he was serving his third term as president of the Mine Workers (UMWA). In 2009, President Barack Obama named Trumka to the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, chaired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker.
At the UMWA, Trumka led two major strikes against the Pittston Coal Co. and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association. The actions resulted in significant advances in employee-employer cooperation and the enhancement of mine workers’ job security, pensions and benefits. In 1994, President Clinton named him to the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform to represent the interests of working families.