Who’s the boss?

A series of recent decisions by the National Labor Relations Board has raised the possibility that millions of Americans may have their right to join together in unions stripped away because of word games played by corporate bosses.

Under U.S. labor law, “employees” have a right to join unions, but “supervisors” do not.

In recent years corporations have begun arguing that workers like nurses, computer programmers, accountants and teachers — workers who occasionally lead teams of their peers, but who do not hire, fire, evaluate or promote anyone — are “supervisors” under this definition. By classifying these workers as “supervisors,” the corporations can deny them their right to form unions.

Greg Tarpinian, executive director of the Change to Win Coalition, sent out a letter last week urging all groups and individuals affiliated with the coalition not to “believe that a scheme this transparent would never work.” He pointed out that three recent decisions by the NLRB (Oakwood Healthcare Inc., Golden Crest Healthcare Center and Croft Metals Inc.) have actually upheld the idea that almost anyone can be a supervisor.

Tarpinian said that unless this is reversed by law, as many as 8 million skilled workers in industries throughout the economy could lose their right to unionize.

The AFL-CIO has issued similar statements.

Change to Win is pointing out that Congress can stop this from happening by passing the Respect Act (HR 1644 and S 969). This legislation would clarify the meaning of the term “supervisor,” preventing corporations from abusing the law. He warned, however, that “corporate interests are mobilizing to ensure that the bill does not pass.”

“Workers’ rights should be respected no matter what games corporations want to play,” Tarpinian said, adding, “Tell your members of Congress to support the Respect Act by co-sponsoring it today.”

Giant transnational sued for backing death squads

Advocates for the families of 173 people murdered in the banana-growing regions of Colombia filed suit June 6 against Chiquita Brands International, part of the United Fruit Company, in federal district court in Washington, D.C.

The families say Chiquita paid millions of dollars and shipped thousands of machine-guns to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC. The AUC is a violent, right-wing paramilitary organization supported by the Colombian army. Its units are often described as “death squads.”

According to family members who appeared in court, the fruit company used the AUC to assassinate their husbands, wives and children, who the company felt were interfering with Chiquita’s financial interests. In the last 10 years, more than 10,000 people have been murdered by the AUC, many of them in the banana zones where Chiquita financed the AUC’s operations.

“This is … the biggest terrorism case in history,” said Terry Collingsworth, the chief lawyer for the group. “In terms of casualties, it’s the size of three World Trade Center attacks.”

Collingsworth is already well known in Colombia for his involvement in lawsuits against Coca-Cola, Drummond and Nestle for the targeted killings of union leaders by the AUC.

The case began with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which filed criminal charges in March of this year. Chiquita admitted the truth of the charges in exchange for getting off with a slap on the wrist — a $25 million fine and no jail time for their executives. Their admissions set the stage, however, for a multibillion-dollar lawsuit that could become the biggest wrongful death case in U.S. history, involving thousands of victims.

Collingsworth said, “Putting Chiquita on trial for … thousands of deaths could put them out of business. I guess this is the one scenario where I would support the death penalty — the death of a truly evil corporation.”

3,000 New Jersey workers unionize in one week

More than 3,000 New Jersey workers now have the power of collective bargaining, thanks to the success of two union organizing campaigns that resulted in major victories for workers.

On June 5, about 2,000 administrative staff at Rutgers University chose to become part of the American Federation of Teachers. Four days later, 1,100 casino dealers from Bally’s in Atlantic City voted overwhelmingly to join with the United Auto Workers, following the lead of 860 dealers who formed a union at Caesars Atlantic City and 500 at the Trump Plaza Hotel in March.

Hotel housekeeping hazards is focus of gathering

On June 6, Terry Smith, a housekeeper at Philadelphia’s Hyatt Regency Penn’s Landing hotel, told of her injuries from doing repetitive tasks required by her job — lifting 100-pound mattresses, pulling triple sheeting off beds, scrubbing low to clean toilets and high to clean showers, and pushing heavy carts.

Smith, a member of hotel union Local 274 of Unite Here’s Philadelphia Joint Board, met with health and safety experts to discuss scientific findings — released for the first time — documenting these hazards.

Scientific studies show increasing dangers to housekeepers from luxury rooms, bedding and amenities. Unionists and scientists say employers need to implement recognized solutions already shown to be feasible and effective.

“Those beds are heavy,” Smith said. “We lift them about eight times a bed just to make it. We do that over and over again for 18 rooms, maybe two beds a room. These are 100-pound beds plus six or eight pillows to a bed.”

Unite Here and university researchers have made recommendations for reducing hazards that, through collective bargaining, have been implemented in the unionized sector. The hotel industry is largely nonunion, however, leaving many workers unprotected.

AFL-CIO explains failure of immigration bill

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney issued the following statement June 8 on the failure of the Bush immigration plan to win Senate passage:

“Plagued by anti-family, anti-worker provisions, President Bush’s immigration proposal was doomed at the onset. The bill abandoned long-standing U.S. policy favoring the reunification of families and failed to protect workers’ most basic rights.

“To be effective, reform must address the real roots of the immigration crisis: an outdated system that creates a two-tiered society in which employers are able to roll roughshod over immigrant workers’ rights while lowering working standards for all workers. If adopted, the proposal would have only exacerbated this condition.

“The best way to guarantee the rights and wages of all workers in this country is to give every immigrant the opportunity to become a citizen, with all the rights and duties that entails. At the same time, Congress must revise our immigration system so that in the face of labor shortages, future foreign workers may enter this country not as dispensable units of production but as permanent residents with the same rights and protections as all other workers.

“With the support of the immigrant rights community, we will continue to pursue an immigration plan that places workers’ rights at the forefront and removes economic incentives for exploitation.”

AFL-CIO explains failure of immigration bill

In a groundbreaking move, San Francisco implemented the nation’s first paid sick leave law on June 5. The measure, approved by 61 percent of city voters in November 2006, officially took effect in February but implementation was delayed while the city’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement held hearings and discussions to clarify provisions.

The Coalition for Paid Sick Days, including Young Workers United, the Chinese Progressive Association, Retail Industry-Supermarket Employees United for Progress (Rise Up!) and others said the measure would impact major employers like Macy’s and the Cheesecake Factory, who have not until now provided workers with paid sick days.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is working on federal legislation for paid sick days, said the San Francisco legislation “leads the way for a new national paid sick days movement.”

Under the law, workers start accruing sick days after 90 days of service, and employers cannot demand a doctor’s note if a worker takes three or fewer sick days. Covered are full-time, part-time and temporary workers, as well as domestic workers such as nannies.

Workers can use their paid leave to care for family members including registered domestic partners, or a “designated person” such as a roommate or neighbor.

Employers with fewer than 10 workers have a cap of 40 hours of accrued sick leave per worker; larger firms have a cap of 72 hours.

This Week in Labor is compiled by John Wojcik (jwojcik @pww.org). Marilyn Bechtel contributed.