Fired for wanting a union, he tells his story to Congress
Union workers and minimum wage activists march during a Labor Day rally in downtown Los Angeles. | AP

WASHINGTON—Jim Staus tried to organize his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) to unionize with the Service Employees’ Pennsylvania affiliate in 2012-13. UPMC’s reaction, like that of so many other employers, was to illegally fire him.

Ever since then, it’s been hand-to-mouth for the 57-year-old Staus, his wife and his now 18-year-old daughter. “Right now, I’m a day porter,” he says.

Six years, and two National Labor Relations Board rulings, later – both in his favor — Staus hasn’t seen one cent of the back pay UPMC owes him for the years since he was canned in 2013. And if and when UPMC must pay up, it gets to subtract the wages he’s earned since the hospital system fired him.

“The more I make, the less I get” from the back wages UPMC owes, he added in an interview.

Staus, like tens of thousands of other workers who stand up and try to organize their colleagues, has not only been fired by an anti-union employer, but then fell victim to the corporate delays and denials that drag their cases through the NLRB and the federal courts, often for years.

Congressional Democrats want to change that. So does organized labor, which brought its case to the Democratic-run House Education and Labor Help Subcommittee on May 8. The Republicans are another matter.

Staus, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and former NLRB Chairman Samuel Pearce all testified about the delays and denials of workers’ rights that permeate U.S. labor law – and the relationships between workers and bosses.

Their praise was for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, the latest, and strongest, version of labor law reform. It would include high fines for corporate labor law-breaking, with a separate fine for each violation, and extend fines to the ultimate decision-makers: Corporate boards and officers.

The measure, HR2474, would also order immediate reinstatement on the job of Staus and other illegally fired workers. Right now, the workers must wait until the NLRB rules they can come back – and federal courts agree. That process can drag on for years.

HR2474 also says that if the NLRB won’t enforce the law, workers can sue on their own, and it bans bosses from interfering in union elections. It also curbs bosses’ “captive-audience” meetings, which feature anti-union harangues and which bosses can force workers to attend, or be disciplined.

The measure also undoes key sections of the 1947 GOP-passed Taft-Hartley Act, which virtually trashed U.S. labor law, and the 1959 GOP-passed Landrum-Griffin Act, which further weakened it.

The big changes from the 1947 law would (a) legalize secondary boycotts for the first time in seven decades and (b) repeal that same federal law’s section that allows so-called right-to-work laws.

Those laws, originally dreamed up by Southern racists afraid that African-American and white workers would unite against their power structure, spread to other states following the 2010 GOP election sweep.

The big change from 1959 would force “persuaders” – more commonly known as union-busters – to report who they work for and how much they got paid. And those detailed filings would, like union spending reports under Landrum-Griffin, be publically available.

And HR2474 undoes two top anti-worker Supreme Court decisions. One, the Janus decision last year by the court’s 5-judge GOP-named majority, makes every state and local worker in the country a potential “free rider” able to use union services and protections without paying one cent for them. The extremist radical right anti-union, anti-worker National Right to Work Committee, and Justice Samuel Alito, pushed it,

The other ruling, around a decade ago, says the NLRB can vote against bosses who break labor law in their treatment of undocumented workers – but the workers, because they’re undocumented, can’t get NLRB remedies, such as being rehired or getting back pay.

The Pro Act also codifies some NLRB rulings from when Pearce ran the board, during the Obama administration. One would make “joint employers” – think McDonald’s headquarters and your local McDonald’s franchise – jointly responsible for obeying, or breaking, labor law.

And it would crack down on employer misclassification of workers as “independent contractors.” That shuts workers out of being organized, and lets bosses get away with not paying Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes for them, or workers compensation, or unemployment insurance.

Since the original National Labor Relations Act in 1935, “corporations and their political supporters have pushed America in the wrong direction,” Trumka told the lawmakers. “Almost every amendment to the NLRA has made it harder for workers to form unions.”

“Every year, union-busting consultants have taken more and more corporate money to prevent workers from coming together to form unions and, when an election is won, to undermine the process of collective bargaining. State ‘right to work’ laws, promoted by a network of billionaires, super PACs and special interest groups, have given even more power to big corporations at the expense of working people.”

The situation is so bad, Trumka said, that unlike running for Congress, an election for union recognition is an extremely uphill battle, with the playing field tilted all to one side – that of the bosses. It’s a tale of harassment, intimidation, illegal spying and firings, threats to close and move, “captive audience” meetings and outright labor law breaking, and all because stopping unionization is cheap.

That’s what happened to Staus, he said in the interview after testifying.

“They harassed me, they surveilled me, they followed me around. They noted who I talked to,” which intimidated other workers. “And at the captive audience meeting, they called me up in front of the others and said ‘unions are no good.’”

Trumka, Straus and Pearce and their arguments for workers’ rights got a sympathetic hearing from the panel’s majority Democrats, as the May 8 session was the first step on the legislative road – at least through the Democratic-run House – for HR2474.

The GOP was another matter. About the only insult committee Republicans didn’t use was the nasty “union bosses.” They inveighed against the right to organize, against unions being able to obtain – legally – worker contact information for organizing drives, against interference with alleged “job creators,” and more.

Their witness, former GOP NLRB Chairman Philip Miscimarra, even predicted that pro-worker labor law reform would drive companies out of the country.

All that led the subcommittee chair who ran the hearing, Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., to dryly say there’s some work to do to overcome the ideological GOP opposition to workers’ rights.

“We heard you and we’re going to try to connect the dots,” she told Trumka, Staus and Pearce, along with unionists, most of them Machinists, who stayed in the audience for part of the hearing. “But right now, they’re not connected.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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