News Analysis

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A congressional forum here on reforming the labor laws that govern union organizing drives spotlighted the obstacles employers put in the way of workers seeking to join a union.

The June 13 forum on the “Employee Free Choice Act” was hosted by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). Nearly 200 people packed the hearing room at City Hall.

DeLauro opened the hearing by saying, “Today the system is broken,” and said it was time to “put some teeth into the labor law.”

Labor law reform is needed now more than ever. Even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to form and join a trade union,” this right is routinely ignored by employers in the United States. Every 23 minutes a U.S. worker is discriminated against or fired for union activity.

Under federal law, workers seeking union representation typically have to go through a laborious, drawn-out process supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB), currently dominated by anti-labor appointees. The delays involved are commonly used by employers to intimidate and even fire workers who support the union.

Miller described some of the provisions of the Employee Free Choice Act (S 842/HR 1696), which currently has 187 co-sponsors. The bill would provide for a fair and direct method for workers to form unions by signing cards or petitions; allow more effective remedies against employers’ illegal and unjust scare tactics; and award three times the amount of back pay to a worker unjustly fired during a union organizing drive.

The bill would also require that first-time contract negotiations have time limits. If such limits were exceeded, it would authorize federal mediation and even arbitration to ensure a first contract between the new union and its employer.

Three panelists — John Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO; John DeStefano Jr., mayor of New Haven; and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal — spoke about the NRLB’s ineffectiveness in protecting worker rights.

“Workers are fighting for basic rights and dignity on the job,” Olson said. “Instead of fighting wars around the world, the government should protect the foundation of American workers and let them have a democratic voice in the workplace.”

Specific stories from different unions unfolded as workers gave firsthand testimony about their experiences in organizing.

Haydee Castillo, a Cintas worker, and Melvin Gonzales, an organizer with Unite Here, gave a brief history of the Cintas facility in Branford, Conn. Cintas is the largest uniform rental provider and industrial launderer in the U.S., with 28,000 workers in 180 plants.

Castillo said she and her co-workers have been trying to organize a union for three years. She makes $8 an hour, but has medical costs of $43 per week. Many immigrant workers are employed at Cintas.

“We want to take care of ourselves here and at home,” Castillo said. “The company is attempting to tell some of our workers that we want to destroy the company. All the workers want is to be treated fairly.”

Jerry Brown, president of the New England Health Care Employees Union 1199, spoke of the long struggle to win union recognition at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He was joined by Willie Tart, a 30-year worker from building services, who said the hospital continues to violate workers’ rights, pointing to the arrest of several workers for passing out union literature.

Lee Mabry, a Chef Solutions worker from North Haven, Conn., spoke of his employer’s repeated violations of the law, including several incidents of sexual and physical assault from the bosses. After paying close attention the others’ testimony, he said, “It sounds like we all are working for the same employer!”

Former NLRB member Sarah Fox said she has heard statements like these from workers many times before. The best remedy for workers against employers who engage in illegal and wrongful tactics, she said, is to treat their violations just as we treat domestic violence, i.e., as a serious crime.

In her closing remarks, DeLauro told the workers, “You are not alone,” and pledged to step up the effort to reform the nation’s labor laws and the NRLB.