America's Middle Class Needs Right to Bargain, Secure Contracts -- Like CEOs Have

09/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In May, when immigration officials raided the kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa and hauled out 389 undocumented workers, the news was all about immigration violations, but now the focus is on the employer, Agriprocessors Inc.
That's because it turns out that while purportedly giving ritual consideration to the animals to be slaughtered, Agriprocessors failed to treat with dignity, or legality, the teenagers, and children, some as young as 13, in its employ. The 57 adolescents, some working 17-hour shifts, six days a week, testified to wielding knives and other dangerous tools prohibited for young workers.
The Agriprocessors incident raises difficult questions in the Jewish community. If meat is denied the kosher label because the animal does not die within seconds of precise slitting, is it kosher when the 13-year-old child who processed it was illegally hired, worked a 17 hour day and was refused overtime pay? What if a 16-year-old undocumented youth, who put in 17-hour shifts, six days a week, leaving no time for anything but work and sleep, said in an affidavit, "I felt like I was a slave?"
These violations happened in Iowa, but they occur elsewhere as well, for a simple reason: the Wal-Mart mentality.
We have allowed that soulless, unpatriotic global-corporate mindset to control government policy. As a result, the rich have gotten richer while the middle class has paid the bill and gone bankrupt. The great builder and protector of the middle class, collective bargaining, has been eroded by deliberate corporate actions over the past quarter century. Meanwhile, the national debt has increased; inflation and unemployment are up, and foreclosure signs mar every neighborhood.
Corporate lobbyists secured from compliant politicians so-called free trade agreements that have resulted in the loss of millions of good paying, often unionized manufacturing jobs. Those jobs have gone to third-world countries where investigations have shown workers often labor long, grueling hours and are not even paid their own countries' minimum wage. Then their products are shipped back to the U.S. to be sold at cheap prices at Wal-Mart by workers who are paid less than a living wage and are denied full-time status and health insurance.
What comes around, goes around in the Wal-Mart world. When uninsured Wal-Mart workers get sick, American taxpayers foot the bill. They pay for coverage through Medicaid, the health insurance plan for the poor. That's what the Walton family, which owns Wal-Mart, banks on. Literally banks on. When American taxpayers step up and pay for half of all Wal-Mart employees' health care, that certainly helps the Waltons stay among the 25 wealthiest families in the world.
Wal-Mart workers would benefit tremendously from forming a union. Workers who belong to unions earn 30 percent more than nonunion workers, and they are 59 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance. The same goes for those workers at Agriprocessors. If they had a union, it could file grievances over the hiring of children, against unpaid overtime and about unsafe working conditions.
In surveys, more than half of U.S. workers, nearly 60 million, say they would join a union immediately if they could. But they don't get that opportunity under the current Wal-Mart mentality global-corporate system. The political system has been stacked against collective bargaining. Global corporations hire "union busters" to intimidate, harass and fire workers who try to organize unions. Workers are fired in a quarter of the campaigns where workers try to organize unions at private companies. Even when workers successfully form unions, they can't get a first contract 44 percent of the time because companies refuse to bargain meaningfully.
There is a solution for this problem. It's called the Employee Free Choice Act. It would restore workers' freedom to form unions and bargain. It would allow workers to create unions by collecting signatures from a majority of workers. As it is now, a company can demand an election for a union. Under the Employee Free Choice Act, workers may have an election if they want one, but the signatures are sufficient in most cases. This puts the workers in control of their union instead of the company.
The Employee Free Choice Act also would increase penalties for companies that intimidate and fire employees trying to form unions. And it would establish mediation and binding arbitration when the employer and the workers cannot agree on a first contract.
The Employee Free Choice Act has bipartisan support in Congress and polls show it is backed by two-thirds of the American public, including Republicans. It passed easily in the House last year, but in the Senate got only 51 votes, not the 60 needed to stop a Republican filibuster.
Fearing the Employee Free Choice Act could win in the Senate if a few more Democrats secure seats there in the fall elections, Wal-Mart took action in recent weeks. Obviously, Wal-Mart fears that Employee Free Choice means less money for the Waltons, and more free choice for its employees.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Wal-Mart executives began indoctrinating thousands of store managers and department heads about what the company claims are the evils of unionization in an attempt to get them to vote Republican. These managers told reporters that the executives informed them that workers would be forced to pay large amounts of union dues and get nothing in return and be obliged to go on strike and get no compensation.
Apparently the nation's largest private employer failed to mention that a portion of union dues goes into a strike fund to provide money for workers who vote to strike. In addition, what workers get for union dues is a contract, guaranteeing them certain salaries and benefits - like the contracts CEOs demand when they are hired by boards of directors.
All of this from a company that flies rapid response teams out to any of its more than 5,000 Wal-Mart stores worldwide to quash brewing union activity.
Global corporations like Wal-Mart have hired the likes of Coalition for a Democratic Workplace and Employee Freedom Action Committee, run by former tobacco lobbyist Rick Berman, to blockade the Employee Free Choice Act. They are trying to make big business out to be David in this David and Goliath struggle, although it is union membership that has shrunk to David size over the past half century. Since its height in 1953, when 35 percent of workers belonged to unions, membership has now fallen to 12.1 percent.
A big part of the reason for that is constant harassment by big business. Let's go back to Agriprocessors. Three years ago, Human Rights Watch investigated working conditions in the meatpacking business and found, among other things, that companies often use illegal tactics to crush union organizing efforts. The report, "Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants," says that when workers tried to defend themselves against harsh working conditions by forming unions, employers used fear and intimidation to stop them. "U.S. law does little to protect workers who try to organize. Enforcement efforts drag on for years, and even decisions that favor workers are usually too little, too late," report author Lance Compa wrote.
He offered this example: At the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., management fired union supporters, threatened plant closure, stationed police at plant gates to intimidate workers and orchestrated an assault on union activists. When the National Labor Relations Board ordered a new election, Smithfield immediately appealed. In 2000, Smithfield created a company security force that under North Carolina law had public police powers. In 2003, it used trumped-up charges, Compa said, to arrest workers who were active union supporters.
The meatpacking industry chooses to use undocumented workers, Human Watch found, because they are easily intimidated. As in Agriprocessor, immigration officials will swoop in and take away a large chunk of a meat packing work force at the drop of a quarter in a pay phone. Human Rights Watch found that some employers use this ability as a threat against undocumented workers who are trying to organize unions.
In addition, what employers like Smithfield and Agriprocessor have up their sleeve is a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying that undocumented workers who are illegally fired for union organizing are not entitled to back pay for lost wages.
Despite all of Wal-Mart's money and conniving, on rare occasions, a union organizing effort wins. And then, the global giant responds by shutting them down.
In 2000, when the United Food and Commercial Workers finally organized a small number of butchers in East Texas, Wal-Mart immediately phased out butchers at all of its stores and stocked prepackaged meat. Similarly, when a store in Canada voted to unionize, Wal-Mart closed the whole store, contending it had been unprofitable.
This really comes down to a moral issue, just like it does for Jews who question whether meat processed by child laborers in abusive, illegal conditions is really kosher. The question for this country is whether it is moral to allow continued rule by Wal-Mart mentality, with its cheap imported wares of dubious safety manufactured under questionable conditions in foreign countries, then imported and sold in stores by American workers paid less than a living wage and denied health care and the right to organize a union.
Restoring workers' freedom to organize and bargain collectively would protect them against the kinds of abuses alleged at Agriprocessors. And it would begin to rebuild America's great middle class as well as re-establish one of our country's fundamental liberties: the right of free association.