Unionists tell Shuler, Walsh of company anti-union hate during organizing drives

WASHINGTON—From intimidation and deportation threats to anti-union harangues to outright lies, companies still use a variety of tactics to scare workers into voting against organizing to defend themselves, a workers’ pre-Labor Day roundtable told Biden Administration Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler.

And such company hate is all the more reason for Congress to pass the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, the most wide-ranging pro-worker labor law reform bill since the original National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the two replied.

The roundtable was part of DOL’s new “Labor Week,” which lead up to Labor Day, Sept. 6. It’s meant to shine a spotlight on U.S. workers, rather than the usual end-of-summer barbeques and frolics which mark the decades-old holiday.

Honor organized labor for the holiday, too, Shuler reminded viewers on the zoom call with the workers.

“Before you head out for that weekend, thank the labor movement for it,” Shuler, an IBEW member, said. Prior to unionization, U.S. workers—union or not—were subjected to back-breaking 7-day weeks, long hours, and often dangerous conditions. “Now we’re organizing for the next ‘weekend,’” Shuler, the new federation president, said.

They’ve got the Democratic Biden administration strongly in their corner. “The president has said over and over again he believes in unions,” said Walsh, himself a member of Laborers Local 223, former Boston area building trades president and former mayor of that city.

President Biden “has made it very clear workers should have the right to organize and bargain. This is the time and the opportunity to move that forward” with a pro-worker administration and a narrowly Democratic Congress whose majority supports workers.

The August 30 roundtable also highlighted workers’ efforts to stand up for themselves, despite hostile and greedy bosses. That prompted Shuler to quip later that sometimes corporate honchos’ actions are the best organizing tools workers have.

That’s what happened at his delivery service, said Chris Jasinski, who’s organizing 82 fellow food delivery drivers in Oakland, Calif., for the United Food and Commercial Workers.

“A lot of guys had had no raises for two or three years,” he explained. They became especially angry when management boasted of “how we’re doing so well” as deliveries “went through the roof” due to the coronavirus pandemic’s shift in consumer buying habits. “But it doesn’t trickle down to us,” he said of the added revenue.

“We want to have a share of it.”

The workers also had to undergo “two and a half weeks of captive audience meetings” filled with bosses’ anti-union harangues, plus “gaslighting,” he said. “I’d love to see these meetings made illegal.”

Under the PRO Act, they would be.

Other workers described other boss tactics which drove them to unionize. In one case, the workers—and the United Auto Workers—appear to be on the verge of success at the University of California system. So the bosses there are trying to force almost 30% of the potential workers out of the bargaining unit.

Elizabeth McCarthy, a grad student researcher at UC-San Francisco said an overwhelming majority of the 17,000 such researchers systemwide filed union election authorization cards with the California Labor Relations Authority. If the campaign succeeds, “It would be the largest student researcher drive in the U.S.,” she said.

Such grad student researchers, resident assistants, and teaching assistants, often exploited, overworked, underpaid, and unsure if they have jobs from year to year, are among organized labor’s new big campaign targets from coast to coast. Besides UAW, the Teachers (AFT), the Teamsters, and the Steelworkers have been organizing the university workers.

“We’ve done the labor that brings in billions of grant dollars” to the university system, McCarthy explained. “But we also have system-wide issues, such as low pay” and “sexual harassment or abuse by superiors.” The survey by Student Researchers United/UAW of potential members showed 60% of the 1,700 respondents reported such abuse.

It also leads to “a higher risk of mental health issues,” she added. “A union would let us address this.”

Shuler responded unions can provide protection, through collective bargaining agreements and grievance procedures in those pacts, against such abuse—a key issue in grad student organizing drives from coast to coast.

The UC system, though, has responded to the overwhelming support, and a request for card-check recognition, by trying to split out around 5,000 of the workers, including McCarthy, from the bargaining unit, using a technicality: The source of the money funding their research.

Others reported even nastier boss responses, which the PRO Act would curb or outlaw.

Lots of retaliation and intimidation

“There’s a lot of retaliation and intimidation,” especially against undocumented people, said Sal Herrera, a Painters organizer based in Houston. And when workers decided to sign up with the union, “instead of addressing the issues we brought up, they (bosses) hired an expensive attorney to write letters threatening to seek cease-and-desist orders and to sue the union.”

The PRO Act would outlaw such tactics. It would also force such union-busters to reveal who pays them, how much, and for what.

And when workers at Sharon Maclean’s assisted-living facility for the disabled in Mercer County, N.J., organized with AFSCME, and were forced to take a strike authorization vote this year—Labor Day is the target date–“They (bosses) said we may not have a job, we may not have a paycheck, we may not have health care. Then they gave everybody in the chain a 10% raise, except for Mercer County—and said the union turned it down,” a lie.

Corporate greed drove the RNs at the big Mission Hospital complex in Asheville, N.C., to unionize with National Nurses United, said 32-year RN Amy Waters. NNU overwhelmingly won the election and now represents its 1,600 RNs.

“At the height of the pandemic, we had captive audience meetings” against the union in a small room that didn’t allow for physical distancing needed to stop the spread of the coronavirus plague. Mission used to be a non-profit, one of the nation’s largest hospital chains recently bought it. The chain’s CEO, Waters reported, earned $27 million last year. Meanwhile, Mission’s working conditions deteriorated, she added.

When the RNs complained, especially on behalf of their patients, “the hospital was so aggressive and nasty” in its response “that they turned a lot of people who were neutral into union supporters.

“They were some of our best organizers.” They also succeeded.

Not only did Mission’s RNs overwhelmingly vote union in 2020, but they ratified their first contract, also by an enormous margin, on July 3. Key features include patient protections. A 12-RN Professional Practice Committee will “review patient care conditions and make recommendations for improvement at the hospital,” NNU’s contract announcement said.

The contract also mandated personal protective equipment (PPE) against the coronavirus and a joint and evenly split labor-management committee on safe staffing and to review and vote on staffing shifts.

The contract also bans mandatory overtime and guarantees meal and rest breaks. It mandates training of RNs in patient handling and lifting to reduce ergonomic (musculoskeletal) disorders. It also includes raises ranging from 7% to 17% over the pact’s three years.

“We are proud of this agreement,” Mission RN Kelly Graham told NNU. “It is a testament to the unity of the Mission nurses, and to the phenomenal support we received from our neighbors, elected leaders, clergy, and friends across the greater Asheville community. Our pledge to all of you is to ensure you receive the highest standard of care when you are sick, injured, and in need of therapeutic, healing hospital care.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.