Stewart Acuff

Labor Needs Unity

The Bush administration is doing everything it can to crush workers from having power over their working conditions and any kind of organized voice to thwart the corporate agenda. It is assaulting the very institution of collective bargaining.

In creating the Department of Homeland Security, they denied collective bargaining and a voice at work to 180,000 Federal workers. Now George Bush is canceling collective bargaining for 750,000 in the Department of Defense, a move that, if not stopped, the administration will force on every federal agency.

The freedom to form unions and bargain collectively is a fundamental human right reflected in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948; it's part of every international covenant dealing with workers' rights. Our government not only fails to protect that human right but is explicitly trying to crush this right for America's workers.

Here in the US, over 20,000 workers were fired or discriminated against for union activities in 2004 alone, according to National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) annual reports.

That amounts to a worker in this country being fired or discriminated against every 23 minutes for exercising the basic human right to form or join a union.

When faced with an organizing effort, 90% of American private-sector employers hire anti-union lawyers and consultants to frustrate and undermine the will of workers.

More than three-quarters of these employers require workers to sit in mandatory 1-on-1 supervisory sweat sessions.

Half of these employers threaten to shut down the facility, and fully one-quarter of them illegally fire workers, according to Cornell University scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner.

The worst part is that our government is complicit with the denial of our basic freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process forces workers through a meat grinder. It is a process riddled with excessive delays, insignificant penalties to deter unscrupulous employers from violating the law, and an unfair election process that puts workers through hell and back simply for trying exercise a basic human right.

In almost half of all instances in which workers vote to form a union, they are denied any initial collective bargaining contracts within two years, according to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services.

It is so bad that Human Rights Watch says that our nation is in violation of fundamental and internationally recognized human rights standards for failing to protect the rights of workers in this country to freely form unions.

The NLRB election process is so unfairly skewed to benefit employers that a vast majority of workers decided to opt out of the process and use a majority sign-up agreement (card check) instead.

Yet, the Bush Board is also attacking the right of employees and employers to mutually agree to this fair process, undermining the very method that workers used most often when the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935.

Under such an organized and cynical attack on workers and their unions at every level, unity within our movement has never been more important.


Organizing More Workers

While we need to do more, AFL-CIO unions now organize on average three times as many workers each year than they did 10 years ago.

All in all, about 4 million workers organized into AFL-CIO unions since the election of President John Sweeney, Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka and Executive Vice-President Linda Chavez-Thompson 10 years ago.

We are reliably organizing about 450,000 new members every year, in spite of a political and economic environment that is increasingly hostile to workers and their unions.

Within this period of time, nearly 20 national unions have either changed dramatically to organize or are in some stage of a process of change that involves moving money to organizing and/or developing other elements of organizing capacity, including recruiting, training and developing lead organizers.

We are proud of the efforts we have made in partnership with our affiliates on a variety of campaigns. Here are some examples:

In partnership with the Graphic Communications International Union, now part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, we just won a huge victory at Quebecor World, the world's largest printing company. After a two-year campaign, the company just agreed to neutrality and an expedited non-NLRB election procedure.

We have been working with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters on other successful organizing campaigns as they are building their organizing capacity -- such as waste and DHL.

The successful effort to organize 3,200 America West customer service representatives last year was led in part by an AFL-CIO team of organizers and was the largest victory in a federal government-run union election in close to a decade.

Though a small union, the change to organizing efforts at the Ironworkers has been exciting. Working with us, they just organized the largest employer in their craft west of the Mississippi, J. D. Steel, bringing in over 1,000 new members -- almost all of them Latino immigrants. We are with them now as they continue their efforts on their second largest employer, Great Western. Almost all these new members are immigrant workers.

We teamed with the United Auto Workers as they've done great work to increase their capacity and organize the auto and auto parts industry. AFL-CIO-led researchers and organizers have played key roles in their victories at auto parts giants J.C.I. and Dana as well as at Freightliner truck and bus assembly plants in North Carolina. Two of our senior organizers are with them now at a very large transplant assembly plant in the south.

The only union to have demonstrated consistent growth year after year in the last 10 years is the American Federation of Teachers. Our lead organizers played key roles as they organized 3,600 graduate workers at the University of Illinois on both the Champaign-Urbana and Chicago campuses.

We've worked a lot with Service Employees International Union over the last several years. In the last four years, our organizers helped organize 5,000 home health workers in Wisconsin to establish Local 150 in that market.

The AFL-CIO coordinated successful multi-union campaigns to organize airport workers at LAX and SFO.

In an effort led by the AFL-CIO, the labor movement and six affiliates changed the law and organized 100,000 public employees in Puerto Rico in the late 1990s. We are presently engaged in an effort to secure that base for current and future organizing.

The AFL-CIO continues to help affiliates build their organizing capacity and win key industry campaigns at Comcast cable, Peabody Coal, New York City multi-union higher education and Phoenix multi-union residential construction.

Additionally, the Organizing Fund has been spent strategically to help unions finance and run industry campaigns or significant campaigns that they couldn't finance alone, such as California and North Carolina farm workers or the successful effort by AFSCME, CWA and AFT to organize 12,000 New Mexico state workers.

Additionally, we have worked with the Illinois State Federation and affiliates to pass a state card check law in Illinois; with UNITE/HERE and the IBT on the CINTAS campaign; with CWA on innovative non-majority campaigns in high tech; with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to assist them in their successful six-year campaign and national boycott of Mt. Olive Pickle Co., a campaign that ultimately enabled 6,000 migrant farm workers to win a union; and with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) in its campaign for airport screeners.

Furthermore, we have made tremendous progress in the last several years on our Voice @ Work Campaign, which is the National AFL-CIO's campaign to restore the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.

No one predicted the groundswell of support that the Employee Free Choice Act would receive. In the 108th Congress, 210 members of the House of Representatives (8 shy of a majority) and almost a majority in the Senate supported this legislation, initiated by the AFL-CIO.

The Employee Free Choice Act would go a long way toward protecting workers trying to form unions. When enacted, it will allow workers to form unions through a simple majority sign-up (also known as "card-check"), mandate first contract arbitration if necessary to reach an agreement, and provide real penalties for employers who violate the law.

On April 19, 2005, the Employee Free Choice Act was reintroduced as bipartisan legislation by US Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), US Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and US Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.) in the House.

Already, we have well over 200 cosponsors in both chambers of Congress. Our goal is to increase bipartisan cosponsorship in the Senate and achieve outright majority support in the House.

In addition to building long-term support to pass this legislation, this bill has allowed us to go back to these elected leaders and ask them to take specific actions in support of worker organizing. For example, more than 115 elected leaders signed onto a letter urging Verizon to pursue a majority verification process in allowing workers to form a union.

On International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 2003, more than 37,000 workers gathered at more than 97 events in 72 cities in 37 states to express their outrage over the fact that workers have fundamentally lost their freedom to form unions and bargain collectively in this country.

This year on December 10, 2005, tens of thousands workers and local labor and allied movements will hold events nationwide to highlight this human rights and economic crisis.

Working with allies such as Jobs with Justice and American Rights at Work, we must continue to break through on this issue with growing partnerships among religious groups and civil, human and women's rights organizations.


Moral Obligation

The fact that we know this fight will take some time does not relieve us of our moral obligation to restore the freedom to form unions.

Every single one of the 57 million workers who say in independent polling that they would form a union tomorrow if given the chance deserves the right to have that decision through a free and fair process.

And when we win this, we will change this country. How do we get national healthcare? Restore the right to organize. How do we defeat poverty? Restore the right to organize. How do we help moms and dads get their kids a better life? Restore the right to organize.

Workers united and in motion is our fundamental source of power.

The fact is that ultimately, rank and file workers and their willingness or unwillingness to move and fight for this issue will determine what happens to our labor movement.

That is why it is critical that anything we do to reform the AFL-CIO has to include the role of workers united and in motion as a central component.

Therefore, it is simply impossible to really discuss reforming, revitalizing and reinvigorating the labor movement without strong input and leadership from the ground up.

Everything that we do is based on a collective unity, and anything that disrupts that unity is a devastating obstacle in our ability to carry out our # 1 priority: to improve people's lives.

I can't think of a single more important thing we can do together in this climate than to help workers organize unions and close the gaps between the haves and the have-nots -- making it possible for all American workers to win a raise through their unity and movement.

Therefore, we must stand with workers trying to exercise the right to freely form unions and bargain collectively.

This means unprecedented mobilizations to support workers organizing, where no one fights alone; where every campaign is brought into the public consciousness; where all workers feel the community and the larger progressive movement behind their efforts.

This means that every effort to frustrate workers trying to exercise their fundamental human right to have a union is addressed and treated as the moral catastrophe that it is.

This means that every single time a worker is fired for trying to organize, we -- all of us -- take that personal crisis in one person's life and turn it into a public crisis for the employer.

And we in the labor movement must honor our history, our tradition and our responsibility to be the engine for the broader movement for social and economic justice.

Our mission is not just to accumulate numbers but to build power, and to use that power to make life less mean and work more noble, to push down wealth and power, to challenge discrimination of any sort, to call this country back to freedom and justice.

Stewart Acuff is organizing director of the AFL-CIO. Adapted from remarks at the South Florida AFL-CIO meeting in Miami, Fla., June 24, 2005. Join the Voice@Work Network at:

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