Union-Busting Remains A Very Real Danger

laborrelationsAnti-union activity is prevalent throughout the United States. What was unthinkable thirty years ago has become commonplace, as the business community has lowered its ethical standards to justify the suppression of workers’ rights.

“People have to walk through a mine field in order to organize,” says Richard Bensinger, former director of the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute. “It is more in vogue in management circles to brag about being non-union or to bust a union,” Bensinger claims, “than it is to respect the right to organize.”

Employees at Overnite shipping company have been on strike since October of 1999, after five years of systematic efforts by the company to undermine their joining the Teamsters union. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled against Overnite, charging the company with more than one thousand unfair labor practices, noting that they were directed by the “highest level officials” and are “highly coercive” and “have a lasting effect on election conditions.” Overnite has appealed the NLRB decision, which requires the company to pay millions of dollars in back pay to Teamster employees and to enter into collective barganing at four terminals.

In September 2000, the Teamsters filed a new round of charges against Overnite, alleging that management paid off false witnesses, committed arson at its terminal in Tupolo, Mississippi, and called in six bomb threats, all in an attempt to make it appear that the union was engaged in violent activities. The FBI and the Justice Department are investigating. The strike is the longest in freight history.

Workers at the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Minneapolis faced even more brutal treatment. After participating in a union organizing drive, eight Latino workers were arrested by agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Even though some of the employees had been in the United States for as long as ten years, they were taken to a detention center and could not call a lawyer for a week. After public and union protests, seven of the workers were allowed to get work permits to remain in the United States for two years, after which they can apply to become legal immigrants. (The eighth worker was denied permission to stay because he had illegally returned to the United States after a previous deportation.) In the end, the workers won a contract, got an official apology, and were awarded $72,000 in damages.

Even church-related institutions are not free of anti-union activity. In August 1997, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) began organizing workers at the United Methodist Health Care Center, a nursing home in East Providence, Rhode Island. Employees were concerned because management had eliminated pay differentials among evening, night, and weekend workers, and had made arbitrary changes in working conditions.

An overwhelming majority of employees signed union authorization cards, but management demanded an NLRB election. In violation of United Methodist social principles, the center’s management pressured workers to vote against the union, distributed literature suggesting that workers who went on strike would be permanently replaced, and even threatened to move all patients to another facility. When 80 percent of the nurses and 76 percent of the other staff still voted in favor of the union, management dragged its heels in negotiating a contract, forcing mediation and later arbitration. Although a conract was finally signed last spring, one former employee of twenty-one years reports that management continues to fight the implementation of each item in the contract.

Companies use a variety of standard tricks to keep their shops “union free.” According to Marty Levitt, a former union-busting consultant for over twenty years, employees are profiled as to how they might vote in an election, and then those who appear pro-union are pressured. Supervisors spread rumors, intimidate pro-union workers, and offer favors to anti-union workers. Anti-union consultants have even been known to plant items in the cars of union supporters to make it appear that they’ve stolen company property. Outsourcing and forced strikes that lead to permanent replacement of unionized employees are other ways corporations make it difficult on workers to exercise their rights.

UNION BUSTING IS A GLOBAL phenomenon. Recent developments in international trade, such as NAFTA and WTO negotiations, have heightened the pressure on unions both in the United States and abroad. The restructuring policies of the World Bank and IMF in the name of “labor market flexibility” have further weakened organized labor worldwide.

Last year, workers in the central Russian city of Ekaterinburg began organizing a union at the Coca-Cola bottling plant. Managers quickly threatened the closing of the plant if the workers persisted. Support for a union dissipated.

At the Duro Manufacturing plant in Rio Bravo, Mexico, workers have twice gone on strike demanding an independent union, an end to harassment, and a livable wage. They have received support from Amnesty International, the Cross Border Network, and PACE, the union representing Duro workers at its U.S. plants. But so far, these efforts have failed. Employees elected to a committee that would negotiate a better contract were fired. Duro promised its employees a new contract, but reneged on that promise. After a female worker was beaten by a manager, over one thousand workers went to the picket lines. Police carrying machine guns violently removed the demonstrators, arresting nine people.

A particularly interesting situation has developed in Sri Lanka. Over the past twenty years, World Bank structural adjustments have created three free-trade zones (FTZs) within that nation. In January 2000, workers formed the Free Trade Zones Union, the first democratic and independent trade union within the FTZs. The union has branches at seven factories and includes over two thousand members. When organizing efforts began, the president of the union was attacked by local political party operatives, and union committee members have been suspended or fired. In May, demonstrations and pickets were outlawed as “activities designed to encourage terrorism.”

THE BIBLE OFFERS A RADICALLY different vision of human rights in the workplace. From the very beginning of the Scriptures, God is portrayed as a worker creating the universe. As persons created in the image of this Worker God, our labor, too, should have dignity and purpose. The opportunity to work and to benefit from the fruits of our labor are fundamental human rights. When unions promote good work and fairness in the workplace, they contribute to the restoration of the image of God in humanity.

The Bible also encourages cooperation and solidarity. The biblical theme of covenant teaches us that human beings achieve their fullest potential in community. “Two are better than one,” writes the author of Ecclesiastes, “because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to the one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves” (4:9-10,12a).

Jesus’ words, “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me,” are echoed in the old labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Labor unions are based on the idea of workers helping one another, in contrast to the individualism and competition that has overtaken our society.

Conservative U.S. politicians who speak about our need to return to “biblical values” might begin by reforming U.S. labor laws to reflect the kind of respect for the rights of workers we find in the Bible. The legal codes of the Hebrew Scriptures ensured the rights of all workers, including foreign workers, widows, and orphans. Safeguards were in place to see that workers were compensated fairly for their labor and so the rich could not manipulate the court system to their advantage (Deut. 24:14-15; Isa. 65:21-23; Jer. 22:13).

Like the prophets of old, the church must stand against the exploitation and injustice perpetuated by corporate power. When corporations ignore the cry for justice, we can take our lead from Moses, the first labor leader and head of history’s first successful labor organizing campaign. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego surely would understand the need to refuse to bow to modern forms of economic idolatry. The prophets and the early Christian church confronted the powers that be. Modern people of faith must continue to speak out against the ways in which our economic system threatens the image of God incarnate in all people.

When labor and religion join together, they can challenge even the most powerful corporations. Three years ago the Poultry Justice Alliance was formed along the eastern shores of Delaware and Maryland to address the injustices being done against workers by Perdue Farms. Under the leadership of Episcopal priest Jim Lewis, the Alliance has grown to a diverse coalition of seventeen organizations including catchers, growers, environmentalists, civil-rights activists, animal-rights activists, unions, and faith-based organizations.

The coalition developed a comprehensive strategy to address a variety of problems in the chicken industry. Its efforts were instrumental in winning the right for workers in Maryland and Delaware to be represented by the Food and Commercial Workers Union. Similar poultry alliances are forming in Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina.

But it isn’t just business leaders who need the church’s vision. The labor movement itself needs the moral clarity that the religious community can offer. Over the past fifty years, labor unions became trapped in the inertia, passivity, and corruption of their own bureaucracies. Too often, they have reflected the oppressive policies of government and the prejudices of society, rather than challenging these forces.

Today, there are encouraging signs of reform within the labor movement: emerging new leaders with a willingness and desire to forge alliances with other progressive organizations. These efforts will be strengthened for the long haul by the moral foundation that religious traditions can provide.

Conversely, the religious community needs the direct challenge of the labor movement to put our faith into practice. Our churches and denominational bodies have a bad habit of passing meaningless resolutions filled with platitudes about “workers’ rights” and “economic justice.” But we rarely apply those social teachings to our conduct in society, and even more rarely to our own church-related institutions. As one old coal miner put it to me, “Those preachers won’t stick their neck out around a crooked tree.”

Partnerships between labor and religious institutions have potential to bring life, not only for those working under oppressive conditions, but for our churches as well. We will find this life when we learn to see, in the scar-marked hands of those who work with unsafe nail guns, the very wounds of Christ.