Commentary | Unions and Labor Standards

A fine line between the hospital and the unemployment line

As an employee who was barely getting by on her salary as a warehouse worker for Rite-Aid Pharmacy in southern California in 2006, Angel Warner hoped that forming a union would help improve wages as well as health care benefits, which had steadily deteriorated despite mounting premiums and co-pays. But she and her co-workers also had a more urgent reason to organize: safe working conditions.

Warner says she was an overworked forklift operator who came under mounting pressure to meet quotas while driving heavy machinery and lifting heavy boxes. “A new management imposed a quota system that basically required us to work in unsafe ways,” she said. “You would go to work every day and walk a fine line between taking a trip to the hospital and a trip to the unemployment line.”

Warner recalled her experience during a press conference to discuss the No Holds Barred paper on the punitive actions that have become commonplace among private sector employers seeking to block their workers from organizing. No Holds Barred author Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, studied data from National Labor Relations Board election campaigns between 1999 and 2003 and found that a majority of employers used some sort of intimidation to block unions from forming. Some 35% of companies fired pro-union workers and 47% threatened to cut wages and benefits.

Warner’s story puts a face to that data. She and a group of coworkers were able to quickly generate interest in joining the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and obtained signatures on two-thirds of the membership cards they distributed in 2006. But it was another two years before secret ballot elections were held, and then the union won only by a few votes. Between the time workers first expressed widespread interest in joining a union, and the time elections were held, Warner said management intimidated workers by firing some who were pro-union. “You would be so scared,” she said. “You’d walk through the door in the morning and wonder: Is this the day I’m going to leave with a pink slip?”

In the steep uphill battle that most workers face forming a union, the story of Warner and her coworkers at Rite-Aid is in many ways a success. In the period between 2006 and 2008 that workers got serious about organizing, so many filed complaints against Rite-Aid for improper firings or other intimidation techniques that the company ultimately settled out of court and agreed to hire back some of the employees it had dismissed. And workers did ultimately manage to form a union. Nonetheless, one year and 30 collective bargaining sessions later, they still have no contract. By Warner’s account, management has not negotiated in good faith. She says the only issue over which they have been able to reach an agreement with management is where to hang the union bulletin board.
“I am here to tell you that the labor laws are not working,” Warner said. “They are not protecting the working class.”

According to the No Holds Barred paper, published by EPI and American Rights at Work Education Fund, the 12.4% of workers who are currently represented by a union would be a much higher portion if all those who wanted to belong to a union could freely do so.

“It’s not that American workers no longer want unions,” said Bronfenbrenner. “It’s that they have come to understand that employers have an arsenal of tactics, legal and illegal, that they will use against them.”

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