Iraq vet faces new battle worker rights at home

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3369.jpgCHICAGO — “The irony of it all – Bush got on TV and said we were in Iraq because we had to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, stop terrorism and spread democracy over there. I served my country honorably over there only to come back home to a place where, as a worker, I don’t even have the right to union representation. The companies hold all the cards. They do us serious hurt if we try to exercise our rights.”

The words were those of former U.S. Army Sgt. Jose Hill, 30, a resident of this city’s South Side and a Comcast technician who belongs to Local 21 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Hill, interviewed by the World, was among thousands of workers who rallied here Feb. 17 for a stronger labor law that would give workers a chance to exercise their rights to bargain collectively for better pay, health care benefits and retirement plans.

They packed the Plumbers Hall, Feb. 17, at a town hall style rally where they were joined by national labor leaders, elected officials, grassroots community and religious groups to support the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would simplify matters for workers who want to join unions.

Speakers told the cheering, chanting and foot-stomping crowd of 3,000, representing almost every union in Chicagoland, that the bill would also stimulate economic recovery by pumping more money into the economy. Union members earn, on average, 30 percent more than their non-union counterparts, are 59 percent more likely to have employer-provided health care coverage and four times more likely to have pensions.

Gail Warner, a speaker at the rally who is fighting for a union at Heartland Human Services in Effingham, Ill., told the World her story in an interview.

Warner, 39, is married and has a 14-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. She worked as a secretary at her company’s outpatient center when the workers there, in a 49-5 vote, won an election for representation by AFSCME.

“We decided to go union,” she said, “because they would always get rid of long-term workers in favor of newer people for less pay. In October of 2005 they took away benefits, made us work more hours and said ‘If you don’t like it, there’s the door.’ So we went union in January of 2006.”

Warner described how the workers spent the next 15 months trying to negotiate a contract and how the company refused to budge. “After all those months, in June, 2007, 36 of us walked out onto the picket line. They hired less qualified scabs to fill our jobs and they paid the scabs more than they paid us. That went on for a year.”

Warner described how, during that year, even some of the scabs started to suffer the same mistreatment that had been doled out to the original workers – rollbacks in pay, increases in hours and other abuses.

A year later, in June 2008, the striking workers decided to go back, hoping to continue negotiations from the inside. The company locked them out, however, and they remain on the picket line. “Heartless Human Services is what we call them,” Warner said.

“I think our case is one of the most compelling to be made for the Employee Free Choice Act,” she said. “If it were to become the law, when workers form a union, both sides would have 120 days to come to an agreement. If they couldn’t, we would go to binding arbitration. The hardships we face in Effingham would never have happened.”

At the rally and at a press conference earlier in the day, union leaders warned that business interests are spending, and will spend “many millions of dollars” to thwart passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and that they will portray union support for it as an attempt to take away the right of workers to cast a secret ballot.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” declared Roberta Lynch, a member of AFSCME, District Council 31, at the press conference. “Right now unions can be formed by card check or by secret elections but the company makes that choice. With the EFCA it will be the same but it will be the workers who make the choice.”

She heaped scorn on what she called “company concern for democracy. Do they consult workers on investment policy or on planned layoffs? Do they consult workers on even where the water cooler should be placed? Why do they have any business, whatsoever, telling workers whether they want a union.”

jwojcik @pww.org