By Dick Meister

AS WE'LL BE REMINDED by rallies, marches and other demonstrations nationwide
on International Human Rights Day Dec. 10, millions of Americans are
illegally and routinely denied the fundamental right of unionization.

Labor, community, political, immigrant and religious groups will mark the
day by launching a campaign to demand effective enforcement and
strengthening of the frequently ignored federal law that supposedly
guarantees workers the basic freedom to engage in union activity and thus
have a voice in determining their compensation and working conditions. Itıs
a democratic right, donıt forget, that benefits not only the workers
involved but entire communities as well by giving economic and political
strength to ordinary citizens.

The lack of firm legal rights is the main reason only about 13 percent of
the countryıs workers belong to unions, as compared to the high of 35
percent in the 1950s and the current average of about 40 percent in Canada
and other western nations.

Studies by government, academic and union researchers show that thousands of
employers regularly intimidate workers who support or attempt to organize
unions, often threatening to fire or otherwise punish them despite the
provisions against such actions in the 68-year-old National Labor Relations

Employers have been able to blatantly violate the law because the legal
penalties are slight, usually small fines at most, and often not even
imposed. And workers fear complaining to the government, knowing it usually
takes months ­ if not years ­ for the government to act and that meanwhile
they will lose their jobs. That keeps many from even attempting to exercise
their supposed union rights. Other workers, such as the millions holding
temporary jobs, arenıt even covered by the law.

Surveys show that at least 42 million non-union workers want to unionize but
wonıt try because they fear employer retaliation. Thatıs nearly one-third of
all U.S. workers. Every year, more than 20,000 who do try to organize unions
at their workplaces are punished, half of them fired.

Employers faced with union organizing campaigns commonly order supervisors
to spy on organizers and force workers to attend meetings at which they rail
against unions, often asserting falsely that unionization will lead to pay
cuts, layoffs or even force them out of business. Similar messages are
delivered to workers one-on-one by supervisors.

In one-third of the instances in which workers nevertheless vote for union
representation, the employer simply refuses to agree to a contract with the
union. Workers who strike to try to force employers to reach an agreement or
otherwise follow the law face a very real risk of being permanently

Avoiding unionization is financially well worth it to employers. Whatever
their jobs, union members are much better compensated than their non-union
counterparts. Overall, theyıre paid an average of 25 percent more and are
guaranteed employer-financed health insurance, pensions, paid holidays and
vacations, sick leaves and other fringe benefits that most non-members lack.

The most important thing members gain is dignity ­ the promise, as one union
organizer noted, ³of being treated like a man or woman, with rights and
abilities that management must respect.²

Union members also are assured a greater voice in political affairs and
community activities, given organized laborıs prominence in such matters.

Whatıs obviously needed is stiffer fines, swiftly imposed,  and other
penalties on employers who so openly violate workersı union rights and
extension of those rights to all workers.

Thereıs an obvious need as well to remove the amendments imposed on the
Labor Relations Act by the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. They shifted the intent
of the law away from its original purpose of encouraging unionization by,
among other changes, allowing employers to intervene in union organizing
campaigns and prohibiting union members from waging sympathy strikes and
otherwise limiting their ability to act in solidarity with other workers.

Even more than that, the law should deny employers the right to replace
strikers, require them to grant union organizers full access to their
workplaces and force those employers who balk at reaching union contract
agreements to have the terms dictated by an arbitrator.

It also would make sense if union recognition was granted simply by checking
union membership cards to determine whether a majority of an employer's
workers had joined the union seeking bargaining rights. That's how it was
originally, with no lengthy election campaigns, no chance for employers to
intimidate workers.

Bills to carry out those and other badly needed reforms have long been
pending in Congress.  Itıs time to fully honor our commitment to human
rights and finally enact them.

Copyright İ 2003 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist who
has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and
commentator.  (dickmeistersf@earthlink.net)

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