02/11/2008 05:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Three TNT Truck Drivers and Bush's War on Labor

Let me tell you a story about three truck drivers from East Liberty, Ohio. It's a true American tale of valor and perseverance. And it's symbolic of the past seven years of Bush administration attempts to stamp out the labor movement while slashing taxes, oversight and regulation on corporations.

The drivers are Emerson Young, John Jolliff and Steven Daniels. Young wrote a letter complaining about two bosses at TNT Logistics of North America in East Liberty.

Then TNT fired all three drivers. It was Aug. 26, 2002.

TNT did it although all three had received safe driving and performance awards. Jolliff and Daniels were among 90 dock workers and drivers who listed grievances that they wanted Young to put in the letter. But Jolliff and Daniels didn't have anything to do with writing the note. Still, TNT fired them too.

So that letter must have been pretty foul, pretty down and dirty, to have provoked dismissal of not just one, but three meritorious drivers, right?

Let's take a look at it. Mr. Young refers to the offending supervisors, Robert Wheeler and Jeff Basinger, with formal, courteous titles thoughout: "Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Basinger."

The tone is actually mild-mannered, as in this passage referring to Mr. Wheeler, "He has lied to us on various occasions and we do not approve of this."

It list numerous specific complaints, including that supervisors had arbitrarily cut 15 minutes from driving schedules so drivers believed that unless they violated speed limits or falsified log books in which they documented times, they could not be paid the same amount as they previously had been for the same routes.

The most confrontational statement in the letter, the one that would get the three in the most trouble, occurs here: "These drivers are being asked by dispatchers and management to do these runs and either fix their log books or turn their heads on it."

Young sent the letter to corporate executives and to an official with TNT's top customer, Honda of America. But he didn't sign it, and neither did any other worker for fear of retaliation.

So what is really going on here? Why can't workers anonymously, and fairly politely, complain about conditions and a couple of supervisors without getting fired?

Here's why: Because before this whole letter thing happened, Young had the temerity to contact the United Auto Workers about organizing at TNT, and when the workers asked him to write the letter, they also urged him to press forward with unionizing.

So for TNT, this wasn't a letter of complaint from workers. It was a challenge from union organizers. And, similarly, firing Young and his buddies wasn't eliminating three meritorious drivers; it was aborting union organizing.

It is because these types of situations that the Bush administration, big business and Republicans have fought so hard against passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would protect workers like these from this very kind of unfair dismissal.

And what did these three get for their years of meritorious service to TNT? Nothing more than their personal belongings out of the cabs of their trucks before they were escorted off TNT property.

That contrasts dramatically with what corporate executives receive when they are booted out of board rooms for poor performance.

Let's consider a few examples. Just about the same time these three truck drivers lost their livelihoods over a letter of complaint, the full extent of the retirement package of former General Electric chief executive John F. Welch Jr. came to light because his ex-wife sought part of the compensation in a divorce settlement.

Her public court filings showed, for example, that Mr. Welch was receiving previously undisclosed corporate benefits such as extensive use of a corporate aircraft, a New York apartment with services like laundry and flowers and a charge account at a restaurant in the building. It all added up to $2.5 million in perks in the first year after Mr. Welch retired in Sept. 2001 -- and of course that's on top of his regular retirement compensation.

Unfortunately for Mr. Welch, it was way more than the $399,925 in perks for the years 1996 through 2001 that General Electric had reported on proxy statements, and the Securities and Exchange Commission took a little exception to this "oversight." If a truck driver had done something similar, say, "fix" his log book in order to make the same amount of money he had previously, and then complain about the situation to corporate officials, he might get fired. In Welch's case, the books were cooked, and the SEC let him and GE get away with it -- by just promising to file correct information in the future.

Now at least Welch made money for GE, not so of executives like Jill E. Barad of Mattel, who resigned under pressure after the company's stock plunged during her three-year reign. Still, when she cleaned out her cab, she found $40 million there that the board left to help her get by. And from the same time period, there's Richard A. McGinn, ousted from Lucent Technolgies. The troubled telecommunications equipment giant's board of directors packed up a nice $10 million and put it in McGinn's cab. I mean, no hard feelings, just 'cause McGinn took the company down.

Let's go back to East Liberty, though. There, the three truck drivers were jobless and without golden parachutes to hold them up in hard times. So they filed charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against TNT, contending the firings violated their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

And on July 16, 2003, an administrative law judge for the NLRB ruled that TNT had, in fact, engaged in unfair labor practices. He ordered TNT to re-hire the three men, pay their back wages and post a notice saying it would stop threatening workers based on their union activities.

TNT appealed. It took the Bush-appointed board three years to decide the case. Three long years for truckers fired over a letter of protest.

Even then, on July 24, 2006, the decision was 2-1, favoring TNT, of course. The Bush dominated board determined that the polite letter of protest justified firing because it was "maliciously false" regarding supervisors asking workers to "fix" logbooks.

This is the same NLRB that would, almost exactly a year later, in September, 2007, issue a sweeping set of decisions - 33 in all - that turned back labor law by more than a half century. This September Slaughter of labor precedent, in some instances reaching back decades to overturn cases, so shocked the labor movement that, frankly, had been habituated to Bush-NLRB unfairness, that it prompted a protest rally.

But I digress from our truckers, who next had to appeal to federal court if they ever wanted to get their jobs back.

As they filed and looked around them that fall, they'd have seen others lose their jobs. There was, for example, Tom Freston, CEO at Viacom. On Sept. 6, 2006 the board there, unhappy with shares falling 11 percent in the two years since Freston took over, showed him to the door. But they gave him $80 million - apparently in appreciation for lowering the company's value.

Shortly before that, there was the case of Michael Ovitz, the failed Disney executive given $140 million by former Disney board chairman Michael Eisner when Orvitz left after just 14 catastrophic months as company president. Some shareholders filed suit against the Disney board of directors over that one, but a judge said Eisner could get away with it because he'd "enthroned himself as the omnipotent and infallible monarch of his personal Magic Kingdom."

Shortly after the Freston resignation, there was the infamous Nardelli exit. In January, 2007, Robert L. Nardelli abruptly resigned as chief executive of Home Depot. Throughout his time at the company, its stock remained stagnant under what was described as his imperious leadership and "deficient strategy, operations, capital allocation, and governance." The board, unhappy with that performance, gave him a $210 million parting gift.

It just seems to turn out better if you mess up when you're at the top, you know, when the decisions you make cost millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

When it got the truckers' case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals didn't dawdle like the NLRB, issuing a decision in half the time.

Just last month, it reversed the NLRB. Here's what it said, "There is little or no direct evidence on whether Young knew that the statement was false. Rather, the Board (NLRB) reached its finding of actual malice by supplementing the thin record with unwarranted inferences and misinterpretations of testimony."

In addition, the court wrote, "we note that the Board based its finding of actual malice, in part, on a bizarre reading of a statement made by Jolliff. . ."

While nice to be affirmed again, the drivers don't get too far with this decision. That's because the case now goes back to the NLRB -- the very one that chose to read the statement in that bizarre way.

It's 2008. The three drivers were fired six years ago. Still, they're pressing on. Year after year, case after case, they persist in seeking justice. They don't have Nardelli's millions.

What they've got is great American grit.