Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘suppressed labor organization’

How To Protect The Right To Organize

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

Abigail Disney, granddaughter of the co-founder of the Walt Disney Co., called out the family business’ current CEO last month for making what’s supposed to be the happiest place on earth pretty darn miserable for its workers.

All of the company profits shouldn’t be going into executives’ pockets, she said in a Washington Post column. The workers whose labor makes those profits should not live in abject poverty.

This is what labor leaders have said for two centuries. But Disney executives and bank executives and oil company executives don’t play well with others. They won’t give workers more unless workers force them to. And the only way to do that is with collective bargaining – that is, the power of concerted action.

The United States recognized this in the 1930s and gave Americans the right to organize labor unions under the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA). The increase in unionization encouraged by the law significantly diminished income inequality over the next forty years. American workers prospered as a result of having a voice in the workplace.

But right-wing politicians, at the beck and call of CEOs, have chiseled large chunks out of labor organizing rights, diminishing unions and breeding vast economic disparities.

The decline in union density accounts for one-third of the rise in income inequality among men and one-fifth among women, Economic Policy Institute researchers found.

The solution, of course, is the same as it was in 1935. In order to restore balance to an astronomically uneven economy, Congress must restore workers’ power to organize. Democrats took a first steptoward accomplishing that when they introduced the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act in the U.S. House and Senate. It would give back to workers the power they need to demand their fair share of the profits created by the sweat of their brows.

It’s great that some billionaires and millionaires like Abigail Disney want CEOs to give their workers raises. But workers need the PRO Act, the power of collective bargaining, to make them do it. Workers know this intrinsically and want union representation. A survey last year showed that nearly half of non-union workers would join a union if given the opportunity to do so. For that to happen, the law must change.

The PRO Act addresses several major problems with the current gutted NLRA that render too many workers powerless. Its intent is to give working people a fair shot when they try to form a union and bargain for a better life for themselves and their families.

The defects of the current law can be clearly seen in the case of Kumho Tire. In 2017, the union I lead, the United Steelworkers (USW), filed a petition to represent workers at the major international tire producer’s plant in Macon, Ga. The company ran a vicious $500,000 campaign against the union, including daily, mandatory captive audience meetings, designed to coerce workers into voting against union representation.

Kumho also fired the lead supporter of the organizing drive, Mario Smith, to intimidate his fellow workers. There are currently no penalties for employers who take such retaliatory actions. The best a wrongly fired worker can hope for is receiving back wages, but only once the case is settled, which can sometimes be years after the termination.

Meanwhile, corporations routinely forbid outside union organizers from entering the workplace, and workers are restricted from speaking about the organizing campaign while on the clock. Such limitations violate the intent of the NLRA, which was to encourage collective bargaining, not hinder it.

The USW filed more than 30 Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges against Kumho Tire, including for the unjust termination of Mario Smith, but this process takes time, sometimes years. And time doesn’t pay unjustly fired workers’ bills.

Under the PRO Act, rather than making fired workers endure long periods of uncertainty while waiting for their ULP cases to be heard by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), unions would be able to immediately seek an injunction to reinstate employees like Smith while their cases are pending. The bill would also authorize the NLRB to assess monetary penalties for each violation in which a company wrongfully terminates a worker or causes serious economic harm.

And those mandatary captive audience meetings would be banned, giving workers the power and freedom to decide for themselves if union representation is right for them.

The PRO Act would also forbid freeriding, which is when workers who choose not to join the union but benefit from union representation don’t pay fair share fees to cover the cost of bargaining and administering the collective bargaining agreement. This would beat back one of the major assaults on labor rights—so-called “right to work” laws—by allowing unions to function fully for their members.

The bill proposes a system to ensure that workers who succeed in a union organizing drive actually obtain a first collective bargaining agreement, establishing terms for pay, benefits and working conditions. As it stands now, nearly half of newly formed unions are denied a first labor agreement as the result of companies’ refusal to negotiate in good faith.

Volkswagen, for example, has spent years and millions thwarting their employees’ attempts to unionize at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. Since 2015, when a group of 160 skilled-trades workers in the plant voted to join the United Autoworkers Union (UAW), the company has refused to negotiate and appealed to the NLRB and the courts to get the election overturned. With courts and the now Republican-dominated NLRB upending union-friendly Obama rulings, that looks likely.

Not to be defeated, however, the UAW has collected signatures from 65 percent of the plant’s 1,709 hourly workers, including the 160 skilled-trades workers. The cards say the workers want an election for union representation, and the UAW asked the NLRB to set a date. Instead, the GOP NLRB postponed the election indefinitely, giving VW all the time it wants to continue waging its aggressive anti-union campaign on their workers.

Newspaper columns and calls for compassion by Patriotic Millionaires like Abigail Disney can only do so much to convince CEOs to treat their workers fairly. Americans need more than nice rich people speaking up for them—they need the power to speak and stand up for themselves. An economy is only as healthy as its workers are empowered.

The PRO Act is the pathway to that power.

This article was originally published at Our Future on May 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard, is the International President of the United Steelworkers (USW) union and is the second Canadian to head the union. He is also a vice president of the AFL-CIO. Gerard is co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.

Exploitation Remains the Name of the Game at Dell’s Chinese Factories

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Michelle ChenThere is nothing newsworthy in the latest investigative report on working conditions in Chinese electronics factories—just the same old story, really: Once again, there’s evidence of systematic exploitation of workers, suppression of labor organizing, poor living conditions and chronic economic insecurity for young workers. What has changed is the intensity of the industry’s resistance to cleaning up the worst labor practices of China’s global manufacturing model. Even as a rising generation of young workers are increasingly disillusioned with harsh working conditions and dismal job prospects, high tech manufacturers are still taking the low road on their rights.

The report, authored by the Denmark-based DanWatch, with support from U.S.-based China Labor Watch and in collaboration with other European consumer advocacy organizations, describes disturbing workplace troubles at factories that supply the computer giant Dell.

It turns out that the chips and motherboards that bring modern efficiency to western offices are made under pretty backward conditions. Through site visits and personal interviews with workers at four factories that supply Dell (all managed by Taiwan-based companies) in Jiangsu and Guangdong, researchers uncovered evidence of numerous violations. At all four of the facilities, employees reported working long hours that sometimes totaled more than 60 a week or exceeded the legal overtime cap of 36 hours per month. In some cases, workers reported working seven days straight, without a day off. This non-stop schedule violates the voluntary standards Dell agreed to under the framework of the Electronic Industry Citizen Coalition (EICC), an industry consortium that promotes ethical sourcing.

The report quotes one worker, Zhao Lili of Guangxi Province, describing physical exhaustion and seemingly toxic conditions on the shop floor:

“Because of the welding, the temperature is uncomfortably high and the smell is toxic. We don’t get mouth protection and I get skin irritation if I touch my face at work,” she says.

Zhao explains the work is exhausting because of the repetitive movements and long hours. “We have to stand up the entire 12 hour shift; to sit down, you have to ask for permission.”

Many, according to investigator interviews and observations, were living in cramped dormitories, with poor quality food and a single toilet for as many as 50 people. Often, employers hired “student interns” to do essentially the same work as regular full-time employees, but with less pay and job security. China Labor Watch Program Coordinator Kevin Slaten tells Working In These Times that this is common practice in an industry bent on squeezing every last drop of profit from its workforce:

The tremendous use of student workers and dispatch or temporary workers is in part a symptom of brand companies, like Dell, driving down prices for production. The factories run on relatively slim profit margins, and the factories attempt to use every trick in the book to cut labor costs, including the use of illegally large proportions of temporary workers.

DanWatch’s investigation aims to implicate the whole electronics-manufacturing sector, but targets Dell specifically because it is a major supplier of electronics to European procurement markets, including corporations and government institutions. Dell has responded to the findings by vowing to strengthen its internal monitoring and claiming that “corrective actions plans are in place” for noncompliance issues it has detected (a recent corporate social responsibility report revealed that most internal workplace audits had also found excessive working hours).

Labor advocates are pessimistic about the industry’s glass-half-full promises.

Following a series of worker suicides at the Taiwan-owned electronics manufacturer Foxconn that provoked public shock, numerous tech companies—most notably Foxconn client Apple—vowed to address supply-chain labor problems and exploitation. But watchdog groups have repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of these voluntary efforts, as they allow multinational corporations to effectively control the oversight of their own supply chains, often through quasi-independent, management-friendly auditing agencies.

But Dell is hardly the only offender in China’s bustling global manufacturing sector, nor is it the first to issue dubious assurances to consumers that their favorite gadgets are ethically made.

Late last month, a group of student investigators who went undercover as workers at several factories in the southern city of Shenzhen revealed that “trade unions in these factories played no effective role in representing the workers or in upholding their rights,” while abuses such as inadequate safety protections, excessive working schedules and minimum-wage violations were rife. The experience is typical for the countless young migrant workers who fuel the tech manufacturing sector. China’s urban economy relies heavily on a vast army of constantly churning migrant labor, and the workforce is becoming increasingly unstable as frustration with the low wages and drudgery of factory work has led to scores of uprisings and wildcat strikes in recent months.

The banner of “corporate responsibility” isn’t enough to quiet these workers’ troubles. What they need instead is a real voice at work, in the form of an independent labor movement. China generally lacks real independent unions, separate from government-affiliated unions that typically work in tandem with management. At several of the audited Dell supplier factories, workers reported “no knowledge of whether they have a trade union or workers’ representative at their factory.” While worker unrest has roiled, activists have accused Wal-MartFoxconn and other companies of suppressing or resisting worker organizing in the Chinese workplaces that drive their supply chains.

With the indigenous labor movement only in its fledgling stages, consumer-led campaigns and groups like China Labor Watch might help encourage worker activism. But in terms of achieving systemic, sustainable change in the industry, Slaten says, “Even if consumers could act in unison, the answer would not be to boycott electronic products manufactured in a given Chinese factory. From the perspective of worker interest, this will only serve to get a great number of workers laid off.”

For workers’ interests to supersede corporate interests, change will need to start where the products do: on the assembly line, where workers can act in unison and stand up for their rights. Outside China, the rest of us—community groups, unions, and ourselves as individual consumers—have a responsibility to keep global public pressure on multinationals, showing solidarity with workers both by getting their back and by making sure the bosses get out of their way.

Correction: The names of the locations of factories now properly cite Jiangsu and Guangdong, along with Shenzhen in particular, as the sites studied.

This article was originally printed on Working In These Times on November 7, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI.

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