But it's possible that at least some corporations could be pressured to change their ways and support the long-term productivity that comes with union rights, because this week a coalition of investors who hold over $750 billion in assets wrote a letter to 100 leading corporations asking them twhether they support the Employee Free Choice Act.. (The short answer for most corporations is: No way.)
As Domini Social Investments group reported:
The letter has been sent to companies such as Bank of America, McDonald's and Lowe's. In it, the investor group informs S&P 100 companies that "The freedom to form or join a union of one's choice or not, and to bargain collectively for the terms of one's employment, are fundamental human rights that we as global investors recognize and respect."
Side-effects of the lack of union power include lowered safety standards that endanger workers and the public. On Friday, union members and their allies staged "information picketing" rallies in Washington and elsewhere to protest allegedly shoddy conditions and lowered training standards that could threaten the safety of the Red Cross's blood supplies. As the AFL-CIO Now Blog reported:
Carrying signs proclaiming "Donors Before Dollars" and chanting "We are the Red Cross," some 200 people joined a giant inflatable rat to "blow the whistle" on the Red Cross at its national headquarters in Washington, D.C. The marchers picketed in front of the building during the busy lunch hour, just blocks from the White House.
Most of the marchers are concerned that blood safety will suffer because the Red Cross national office is insisting that workers take pay cuts and that qualified nurses be replaced with unlicensed supervisors. Some carried handmade signs saying, "Nurses Are Needed" and "No Blood Money." Said one marcher who asked not to be identified:
"Here is an organization that made millions of dollars in donations last year and it can't share that with the folks that make the Red Cross what it is."
One major problem, rally organizers say, is that national Red Cross officials have taken over contract negotiations that used to be handled by local or regional officials. Joe Marutiak, a member of Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU) Local 459 in Michigan, said even though contract negotiations have been hard over the years, "we have always been able to respect each other and resolve our differences."
But this year the national Red Cross took over the negotiations entirely and the respect for the employees is gone.
Even more disturbing, the Red Cross's efforts to cut labor costs at the risk of safety appear to violate a court order to maintain the quality of its blood supplies. As the AFL-CIO Now reported:
For 15 years, the Red Cross has been under a federal court order to improve its blood donor operation. Despite $21 million in fines since 2003, it continues to fall short. According to the New York Times:
Such measures, however, are undercut by high turnover among employees, who are paid little better than minimum wage, former executives say.
But rather than pay its workers a decent wage, the Red Cross is trying to force employees to work unlimited hours, replace nurses with unlicensed supervisors, slash workers' health care and cut or freeze wages.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says in a statement that the Red Cross' actions demonstrate why workers need to be protected:
"For decades there was a great relationship between workers and the Red Cross and it's a shame that they are now engaging in this disgraceful behavior that endangers donors and workers. This is yet another example of why we need to pass the Employee Free Choice Act so workers have the freedom to choose to join a union."
Wal-Mart's vicious approach to unionbusting and decent working conditions is well known, but sometimes, a particular horrifying incident shows just how little workers' lives are valued by a corporation obsessed with profits over people. Now, thanks to an OSHA ruling, we know exactly how little a worker's life is worth to Wal-Mart : $7,000, according to OSHA. As the Change to Win labor coalition reported:
Remember back in November of last year when we told you the tragic story of Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year-old temporary worker at a Long Island Walmart who was crushed to death by a mob of shoppers storming the store for Black Friday deals?
The employee was "stepped on by hundreds of people" as other workers attempted to fight their way through the crowd, [Nassau County police Detective Lt. Michael] Fleming said.
"Several minutes" passed before others were able to clear space around the man and attempt to render aid. Police arrived, and "as they were giving first aid, those police officers were also jostled and pushed," he said.
"Shoppers ... were on a full-out run into the store," he said.
Well, yesterday OSHA announced the results of their investigation into the incident -- and their findings confirm that the tragedy was entirely preventable:
OSHA's inspection found that the store's employees were exposed to being crushed by the crowd due to the store's failure to implement reasonable and effective crowd management principles. This failure includes providing employees with the necessary training and tools to safely manage the large crowd of shoppers.
"This was an unusual situation but not an unforeseen one," said Anthony Ciuffo, OSHA's acting area director for Long Island. "The store should have recognized, based on prior "Blitz Friday" experiences, the need to implement effective crowd management to protect its employees."
Mr. Damour's death, in other words, was no accident. It was not a freak occurrence nobody could have foreseen. It was predictable, given Walmart's failure to take appropriate measures to deal with the near-riot situation their marketing department had whipped up.
So what's the punishment for shocking corporate negligence that results in the death of a worker? OSHA hit them with the maximum fine allowable by law -- $7,000.
That's right. Seven thousand dollars....
A man is dead. Walmart could have -- should have -- prevented it. And their punishment is a $7,000 fine.
Mr. Damour's case is not the only one where corporate negligence that resulted in a worker's death was punished with a slap on the wrist. Last month, Rebecca Foster told the House Education and Labor Committee about the death of her son Jeremy, who was killed in 2004 at the age of nineteen when a piece of machinery at his place of work -- modified in violation of OSHA safety rules -- caught his shirt and strangled him to death.
Unions such as Change to Win point to key reform legislation as vital for toughening penalties on negligent companies:
President Barack Obama has brought in a new team at the Department of Labor that is committed to ensuring that every worker has a safe workplace. But they can only do as much as they are empowered to do by the law. And the laws that govern worker protection on the job are shockingly toothless.
Congress has the opportunity to fix that. The Protecting America's Workers Act is legislation currently before the House of Representatives that would strengthen a range of protections for workers on the job -- including raising the minimum fine in cases like Damour's to $20,000, with a potential maximum of $50,000. And that means those companies will be more likely to give their workers the protections they deserve.
You can help pass this important legislation by urging your Representative to support it:
It's too late to save the lives of Jdimytai Damour or Jeremy Foster. But it's not too late to ensure that the laws provide appropriate punishments for corporations whose reckless indifference to the safety of their workers results in lost lives and broken families. Tell your Representative to act today.
Even with such legislation, if it passes, unions are essential to ensuring on-the-ground safety standards as part of their contracts with employers. It's no surprise that investors who care about their companies' futures understand how vital a role unions play (via Boston Common Assets Management):
"As investors, we believe constructive labor relations are essential for improving productivity, efficiency and workplace safety," said Steven Heim, Senior Vice President and Director of Social Research and Advocacy for Boston Common Asset Management, LLC. "We believe the proposed legislation would help appropriately rebalance labor-management relations and better protect workers if they face unlawful conduct by employers when exercising their workplace rights."