Undermining Democracy: Worker
Repression in the United States
An Interview with David Bonior
Multinational Monitor magazine,
David Bonior is the chair of American
Rights at Work, a Washington D.C.-based organization that advocates
for the freedom of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively
with employers. He also serves as University Professor of Labor
Studies at Wayne State University. Bonior is a former Member of
the U.S. House of Representatives, to which he was elected from
Michigan. When he retired at the end of 2002, he had held the
position of Democratic Whip, the second ranking Democrat in the
House, for 10 years.
Multinational Monitor: Why are unionization
rates so low in the U.S. private sector and higher in the public
David Bonior: There's been a chipping
away at the basic 1935 National Labor Relations Act to the detriment
of working people. The law was established to allow them to form
unions and to protect them in that endeavor. Since 1935, however,
those protections have been eroded by a series of court decisions
and legislative actions - including the Taft-Hartley Act and the
Landrum-Griffith Act - the actions of different administrations
like Reagan's handling of the air traffic controllers strike,
plus a variety of decisions that have been handed down from the
National Labor Relations Board, which is the agency that is made
to enforce the National Labor Relations Act and protect workers.
If you add all of that up and throw into the mix the relatively
new phenomena of union-busting law firms - firms primarily hired
for the specific reason of busting any attempts to organize a
union in the workplace - you just have a very, very bad situation.
That's one of the reasons that union density is down.
Of course, there are other reasons. The
outsourcing of manufacturing jobs has cut tremendously into union
membership. The United Auto Workers (UAW) is a good example. When
I came to the Congress in 1977, the UAW had about a million and
a half workers; today it has just under 600,000 workers. That
has been due to opposition to organizing in the United States,
especially by foreign companies operating here, and the outsourcing
of jobs abroad.
Another factor that should be mentioned,
in addition to union-busting and outsourcing, is the lack of understanding
in the culture today of the importance of unions in establishing
a base of benefits and wages whether you belong to a union or
not. And understanding the struggles of the labor movement. We
at American Rights at Work try to address those issues in our
MM: Given the framework of U.S. labor
law, how prevalent are violations of rights that are supposedly
Bonior: They are very prevalent. Twenty-three
thousand workers every year are fired or discriminated against
at their workplace for union-related activities, according to
National Labor Relations Board statistics. These are just the
people that we know, and who have filed claims. There are probably
tens of thousands of others who would fall into that category,
but don't bother to pursue a recourse to their discriminations
and firings. It is a huge problem. To give you some perspective
on that: the International Labor Organization arm of the United
Nations ranks all member countries based upon compliance with
labor law, and the United States ranks in the bottom twentieth
percentile. We are down there with Iran and with Afghanistan.
We do not comply with our own labor law. As a result, we've seen
the numbers of illegal firings and discriminations shoot up from
five and six hundred in the 1960s to a few thousand in the 1970s
now to epidemic proportions of 23,000 to 30,000 a year.
MM: What's the social impact of that?
Bonior: The overall impact for the economy
is that fewer people are represented by unions. Fewer people have
a voice at work. More people are at-will workers - in other words,
totally at the mercy of their employer, with virtually no say
in their work situations. As a result, the wages and benefits
of working people have either been frozen or declining over the
past 25 years - while, of course, the wages and benefits of the
executives have gone through the ceiling.
MM: In a typical organizing campaign,
what obstacles do union supporters face?
Bonior: If you go the National Labor Relations
Board route and petition for an election, you need a certain number
of signatures to get the Board to hold the election - usually
around a third of the workers. You file the signatures, the Board
schedules a date for the election, and then the campaign ensues.
But the campaign is very unfair under the standards and rules
that have been set up by the National Labor Relations Board.
Under these rules and the Board's weak
enforcement of the rules that do exist, the employer can hold
captive one-on-one meetings with employees. Employers regularly
threaten to move their company out of the country if a union is
formed. The employers oftentimes through their union-busting firms
will provide bribes (such as promotions to leading union supporters).
There have been two significant studies
on the illegal and legal abuses by employers in union organizing
campaigns. One was by Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor scholar at
Cornell. She found that 85 to 90 percent of workers have to go
through one-on-one meetings with their supervisors. Twenty-five
percent of all organizing drives end up with somebody being illegally
fired - and that sends a message to everybody else that if you
go the union route, you too could end up being fired from your
job. Fifty percent of employers threaten to leave the country
or to shut down if the workers vote to join a union.
American Rights at Work commissioned the
University of Illinois at Chicago to update these numbers, focusing
on organizing in the Chicago area.
What we found was that the number of abusive
activities even increased. So there is a lot of intimidation at
MM: If the union manages to prevail in
the election, how do the employers typically respond?
Bonior: We did a study of workers in the
nursing home industry in South Florida. These are folks that basically
had no representation, they were making seven bucks or $7.50 an
hour, and they had no health benefits even though they were taking
care of our parents and grandparents. They voted themselves a
After workers vote for a union, the employers
appeal the election to the National Labor Relations Board. The
Board takes six months to a year to decide whether their appeal
has any validity. If the Board decides in favor of the workers,
the employer says, "Okay, we'll just take that to the next
level. We'll take that to the courts." So they go the court
In the case of the South Florida nursing
home industry, we found it typically takes five, six, seven years
to settle. By that time, you dissipate the union - all of the
energy is taken out of it. It's one of the reasons why the ILO
ranks us in the bottom 20 percent of compliance in the world today.
The Employee Free Choice Act, which is
pending in Congress, would change all of that. It would establish
that workers could join a union through "card check."
When 50 percent of workers at a workplace sign a card that says
they want to have a union and that's verified by a proper agency,
then you have a union. That's what happens in Canada, it is what
happens in Western Europe. It happens a lot now in the United
States - 80 percent of all new union members in the United States
are joining through card-check, because the NLRB elections system
is neither free nor fair.
MM: Where there are violations of labor
law, what are the remedies available for the affected workers?
What kind of enforcement mechanisms are there?
Bonior: Right now there is very little
enforcement. If you get fired for trying to organize, for example,
you can apply to the NLRB. If the NLRB finds that you were illegally
fired, the employer has to give you back-pay for the time you
were fired - minus any money that you may have earned at another
job. As you can imagine, most people who are fired for trying
to organize will, in fact, get another job somewhere, so there's
no compensation for them at all. Then all the employer has to
do is post on a bulletin board at the work site that they won't
do it again. So there are effectively no sanctions, and it is
in the employers' interest to fire people. They really don't suffer
many consequences for doing so, and firing a leading union supporter
sends a very powerful message to the rest of the employees. The
message is: if you too try to lead an organizing campaign, you
are going to lose your job; and if you vote for a union, you could
lose your job.
MM: What are the things that the Bush
NLRB has done that have caused you to say that they are stripping
Bonior: They've done a number of things
over the last two years. They have taken away the rights of temporary
workers to form a union. They've taken away the rights of people
with physical disabilities who receive rehabilitative services
from their employer to join a union. They've taken away the rights
of research assistants and graduate student teachers to join a
union at private universities. They just keep chipping away.
And, in a series of cases called the "Kentucky
River cases," they have basically just decided to allow employers
to re-classify workers as supervisors - who are not permitted
under Taft-Hartley to join a union. Now, if you have a smidgen
of supervisory responsibility, you will not be allowed to join
a union. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that this could
deprive an additional 8 or 9 million people of the right to join
a union. You add that on top of the 32 million that are already
exempt from the ability to join a union through the National Labor
Relations Act, and you add all of the other pieces that we've
just talked about and it becomes clear that it is very difficult
to organize in America. It is a scandal.
The right of association is a Constitutional
civil liberty right. It is like the right to free speech, the
right to a free press, the right to religion. When you don't have
the right to association, you really threaten your democracy.
There is no more important place to associate than within your
workplace. The first thing that a dictator, a Hitler, a Pinochet,
will do is get rid of the right of association, and that is exactly
what has been happening and accelerating in the United States
in regards to workers at the workplace.
MM: In addition to mandatory card-check,
are there other reforms that you are pushing for U.S. labor law?
Bonior: In addition to card-check, we
want to increase the penalty for people who violate the law. Under
the Employee Free Choice Act, penalties increase tremendously
to employers, so there actually is a sanction against violating
the law. Currently, once you get union recognition, oftentimes
the employer won't bargain. They won't go to the table. This legislation
would require that they come to the table within a certain amount
of time, and if that doesn't happen they go to mediation, and
then binding arbitration.
MM: Do you think that workers in the U.S.
would be better off just scrapping altogether the National Labor
Bonior: No, although there are some labor
people who believe that.
I think what we need are good people on
the Board who are there to enforce the original intent of the
Act. We also need support obviously from the President and Congress
to strengthen the Act. I think that's where we need to go.
MM: Globally, the United States is held
up, at least by employers, as a model of "labor flexibility"
that other countries should emulate. What's your analysis of labor
flexibility in the U.S. system?
Bonior: There's not very much flexibility
for workers. In the United States, workers are pretty much at-will,
meaning they are at the mercy of their employers and can be fired
for virtually any reason. They have very little say. It's much
different in Europe, where the system is more fair and understanding.
There are some U.S. employers that recognize
the benefits of cooperating more with employees. You can contrast
Wal-Mart, or Sam's Club, with Costco. Costco understands that
if you pay people and give them decent benefits, you'll have a
better workforce. And they do. They have much less turnover. They
make much more profit per worker, because they treat their workers
well. It is the same with Kaiser Permanente, Catholic Healthcare
West, Harley Davidson, Cingular Wireless - there's a large number
of companies that do this well and do it right. And are very profitable
and everyone wins - the workers, the shareholders and the community.
That's the high road, and that's the model
that we at American Rights at Work advocate.