Fighting for Employee Rights the American Way

I was both surprised and amused when I read this piece in the New York Times about  the French way of handling labor troubles.

According to what's reported, at least three times in recent weeks workers in France have held their bosses hostage in order to get management  to accede to their demands.

Last week workers at a Caterpillar plant in the French Alps held five of their bosses in a dispute over their severance packages. Pierre Piccarreta, a French union representative, justified the conduct this way :

“There is no violence or sequestration, but simply pressure so they restart negotiations . . . .At a time when the company is making a profit and distributing dividends to shareholders we want to find a favorable outcome for all the workers and know as quickly as possible where we are going.

The same type of hostage taking occurred at two other French plants in recent weeks:

  • Workers at a 3M plant held their boss for more than 24 hours at a plant in Central France.
  • Workers at a Sony plant in southwest France held their boss overnight when they were trying to get better severance packages.

France has  a long history of labor militancy and as reported in the Times has become increasingly restless as the impact of the global economic crisis worsens . The French unemployment rate rose to 8.3 percent in February, according to the European Union.

It certainly struck me as an interesting contrast to the way we do things in America.

It's no secret that we are in a hot debate over the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill provides a bypass to the traditional union election process and allows for a certified bargaining unit if a majority of workers sign cards indicating their support for a union.

The bill would also provide stiffer penalties against employers for intimidation and retaliation of union organizers.

Labor suffered a real blow this past week when Senator Arlen Spector backed out of his support for the bill.  Another hurdle came came from Senator Diane Feinstein, a past sponsor of the act. Citing the flailing economy as a reason, her office issued a statement indicating she would seek alternative legislation that was less divisive.

There are many compelling reasons for the bill and it still has lots of support. One example is the excellent editorial by David Freiboth in Friday's Seattle Times who wrote:

The debate over pending labor-law reform, the Employee Free Choice Act, is getting mired in concerns about an employee's role in democratic determinism, thereby missing the larger economic issue that drives the real issue. Scare tactics that highlight problems with union intimidation during organizing campaigns are just that — scare tactics — designed to subvert the essence of the issue.

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One More Reason Why We Need the Employee Free Choice Act

There a host of good reasons why the Employee Free Choice Act should pass. They are very well articulated in the AFL-CIO website and AFL-CIO Blog. There’s also a wealth of information on TheHuffington Post.

According to those reports:                                                                                    

  1. 60 million people say that they would join unions if they could
  2. An employee who helps to organize a union has 1 in 5 chance of being fired
  3. Three quarters of the public -- nearly 73% -- are in favor of giving employees a fair chance to organize without employer obstruction and interference

There’s also a good reason for the passage of the Act I would like to share as an individual who has been representing employees for over twenty-five years. It may be obvious, but it's not often articulated.

Time and time again I have seen cases where employees were either prevented from or strongly discouraged from organizing a union.  In some of those instances, employees were given handbooks which looked similar in many ways to union contracts as a substitute or an appeasement.

The handbooks contained provisions, employees were told, which would give them similar benefits and protections to what they would have if they formed a union. The handbooks contained provisions for progressive discipline, layoffs by seniority, bumping rights and more.  The employees believed that they were protected and secure.

But when the time for layoffs came, seniority provisions were routinely not followed. Older employees were let go with 25, 30, and 40 years of experience. Women and minorities were fired in disproportionate numbers.

When we sued and attempted to get the provisions of the handbooks enforced we were told: “That’s just a handbook. Those are just 'guidelines’. It’s not a contract so we, the employer are not bound by it and can make choices as we see fit."  Most judges went along with the corporations.  The employees had no protection.

The result in tough economic times is that many employees in their 50’s and 60’s  are let go while the younger, less experienced employees stay on. The older employees lose the only jobs they had ever had with little chance of finding any work and no chance of finding comparable work – too young for social security, not old enough for retirement benefits, no health benefits without income to pay for it – not a good situation for our country.

And it's not safe.  Sometimes the older experienced workers -- those who know what they're doing -- are let go while the young and inexperienced workers are either retained or hired in to replace them. In many plants, it's a dangerous situation both for the workers and the community in which they live. I know of a case pending right now involving a chemical plant which frighteningly presents that precise scenario.

So unions are important for many reasons. But for someone who has represented countless individuals in age discrimination cases, they are particularly important in times of workforce reductions so that rules of fairness and safety instead of subjective attitudes of discrimination serve to control the harsh decisions that must be made.