THE BLOG

An Undertone of Dissension Caused by a Union Election Proposal

05/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Kevin Harmon, a retired plumber, opposes "Card Check" and said he would not sign a union membership form among fellow workers if he were back at Local One in New York City.

Hector Monterrey, an organizer for Local 519 in Miami, supports "Card Check," but said since plumbers rarely speak to him, so fearful of losing their jobs, he could not judge its utility. Instead, he hopes a prominent workplace nearby unionizes and actuates his constituency.

Thad Steinke, who organizes heavy equipment operators for Local 139 in southern Wisconsin, also supports "Card Check." He said it would eliminate cases in which supervisors foil elections by intimidating employees, like at Rath Gibson, a stainless steel maker, who awaits judgment by the National Labor Relations Board for such charges this year. A case Steinke worked.

"Card Check," a provision of the Employee Free Choice Act, was introduced in Congress in 2006 and has been the subject of an impassioned debate. It would allow workplace majorities to organize without elections by forgoing private ballots, and the bill authorizes employers and union organizers to watch employees sign membership forms.

The signatures would, in essence, become public knowledge and break the democratic tradition of voting privacy.

However contentiously both sides act, most members in blue-collar trade unions agree on one aspect of the argument: Fear is a fixture of union formation -- an inescapable tradition of its own.

Harmon, a former Marine and a third-generation union man, was brought in by his father "Red." He worked on the World Trade Center, in Mount Sinai Hospital, during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and through the Mafia's union manipulation of the 1970s. Over the years, Harmon worked with workers of many ethnicities. But when he began, 40 years ago, Local One was named Local Two, and it was white and mostly Irish.

"The door was closed to outsiders. It was an unwritten code," said John Murphy, the financial secretary and treasurer of Local One and a fourth-generation plumber.

In 1964, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was enacted to expunge discrimination from the work place. Affirmative action, its more controversial sibling, required hiring diverse workforces for government funded projects. Most trade unions selected minorities for apprenticeship programs to placate the federal criterion.

And white unions, like Plumber's Local One, faced the dilemma: allow for non-white workers or find jobs elsewhere.

Most unions complied. But tensions were carried on to jobs sites by unofficial neighborhood work coalitions.

"They came in busloads and forced their way onto job sites," Murphy said. The coalitions interrupted work until contractors paid or offered them jobs. In many cases, Murphy said, "It was extortion under the guise of finding employment for the underprivileged." In some cases, turf wars broke out when coalitions bumped into one another at a work site. Workers cleared concrete slabs while the coalitions flung wrenches and bricks at each other's heads.

Joseph Cangelosi, a business agent for Local 79, general construction laborers in New York City, said he's always on the lookout for the next "big job." He said if laborers don't find work, they don't earn wages. "And we want to make a living," he said.

The constant need for employment, the rugged conditions, the masculine customs, a history of nepotism and subsequent governmental regulations to diversify the trades has estranged the collective blue-collar personality from its more docile white-collar brother.

To some degree, that is why, when Harmon was asked if he would sign a card, he said bluntly in his Bronx accent, "I just won't put my hand up."

Union Facts, a corporation-supported watchdog group, called the Employees Free Choice Act, "a scheme rife with intimidation, coercion, and confusion."

Justin Wilson, director of the Employee Freedom Action Committee, which runs Union Facts, said employees would forgo a basic democratic right to privately vote and sign hard-to-understand agreements with the unions.

"The key to it is the language barrier," he said. "Spanish- speaking organizers have solicited members in English." He cited instances of Hispanic employees signing union membership cards without any translation. Last year he produced a short documentary for Union Facts profiling three female Spanish speakers harassed to join a manufacturing union.

In Miami, Monterrey, a first-generation plumber and organizer for a 600-member local said, "It's the United Nations down here." But said he never encountered a language barrier at job sites because reticent workers turned and walked away from him.

"They have the perception unions will get them fired," he said. In the future, Monterrey said he hopes a popular company will unionize and be an example for others to follow, but his outlook is bleak. "When there's no protection, no one will talk," he said. "And you can't guarantee somebody their job."

A recent union flop in Fort Meyers further discouraged him. He said the employees united, ready for a union when, "They were all fired," he said. "The owner filed for bankruptcy and opened another business later."

But Monterrey said he is sure that, "When you get the majority, you should get a union."

Steinke said he believes that same notion should go for southern Wisconsin workers, mainly farming families near the edge of Illinois. He cited the Rath Gibson case, in which management infringed upon workers' rights six times, even casting fraudulent votes, as 124 employees organized in 2009. He said "Card Check" would eliminate time-consuming elections, since, according to the bill, the workplace would automatically unionize after one more than half of the employees voted yes. And three-fourths did at Rath Gibson.

Though it's unclear how divisive "Card Check" would be, Steinke said, "It won't be its defining characteristic -- to create dissension among employees. That will always be there. It's human nature."