Republicans Fight to Let Corporate Bosses Break Laws Protecting Their Workers
Working America labors under the weakest protections from abusive management in the developed world, by far. We take it as a given that our bosses can fire us for any reason (with a few exceptions like discrimination on the basis of race or gender), or no reason at all – a notion that would shock and appall working people in most advanced economies.
But corporate America doesn't want the very modest protections that do exist in this country to be enforced. Even as companies lay claim to many of the Constitutional rights of citizenship, they want to be held above the rule of law when it comes to their employees.
This desire lays at the heart of a recent barrage of assaults on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a New Deal agency that for over 75 years has been tasked with enforcing the very modest protections for organized workers afforded by the National Labor Relations Act. The agency, according to former NLRB general counsel Fred Feinstein, “has the stated purpose of encouraging private-sector collective bargaining, protecting employees’ right to form a union to improve working conditions and preventing retaliation for exercising these rights.” He adds that passage of the law “helped the U.S. climb out of the Great Depression and encouraged the growth of a vibrant middle class for much of the last century.”
The primary focus of conservative outrage at the NLRB of late has been its complaint against Boeing for locating a new plant in South Carolina as an explicit act of retaliation against its unionized Washington state workers for going on strike – for exercising a right guaranteed by the law.
The company's CEO claimed that he'd “made a rational, legal business decision about the allocation of our capital and the placement of new work within the U.S.” The spin is that the company was simply pursuing its business interests according to “free market” principles, when pasty government bureaucrats intervened. But the truth is very different. Boeing can indeed locate its operations wherever it wants to for any legal reason, including seeking out states with low union rates and cheaper labor costs. What it cannot do is break the law, and that is what is alleged in the case.
As the American Constitution Society (ACS) explained it, “The right to strike is protected by law, and an employer’s retaliating against employees for exercising their legal rights violates the NLRA, the law the NLRB enforces.”
After the charge [against Boeing] was filed, the NLRB’s regional office in Washington investigated the case. That investigation involved taking sworn affidavits from witnesses and collecting other relevant evidence. Boeing had the right to present its evidence during the investigation. The evidence included public statements by Boeing officials – and reported in the Seattle Post Intelligencer Aerospace News and the Seattle Times– that they were angry that Boeing employees in Washington had gone on strike in the past. Boeing officials also said that they would, therefore, move work that was originally going to be done in Washington to a plant in South Carolina. This evidence... supports a finding that Boeing violated § 8(a)(1) and (3) of the NLRA.
Boeing has been the driving force behind the backlash against the NLRB, and the right has been quick to jump on the bandwagon. Sarah Palin, ignoring the fact that we have far fewer protections for workers than any other developed country on the planet, offered what has become an industry-standard talking-point, predicting that “eventually every state will suffer when businesses declare 'enough is enough' with these tactics and decide to relocate in more business-friendly countries.” And during the recent GOP debate in New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich called on Congress to “Immediately...defund the National Labor Relations Board which has gone into South Carolina to punish Boeing, which wants to put 8,000 American jobs in South Carolina.”
Rep. Darrel Issa, R-California, told MSNBC host Joe Scarborough that “[If] the labor union wants to make a suit, make a suit but for the government to spend your tax dollars to pursue seems to be over the top.” Issa was either misinformed about the labor laws in this country, or he was intentionally misleading the show's audience: according to the National Labor Relations Act, unions cannot sue companies for violating the labor laws. Their only recourse is to file a complaint with the NLRB – if it were defunded, union workers would have absolutely no protection whatsoever against illegal practices on the part of employers.
Even the most modest rules that might help working people form unions are under assault today. As labor journalist Mike Elk reported, the NLRB proposed a new rule this week that would simply streamline the union elections process. “Companies seeking to stop union drives often delay union elections by months in order to allow more time for extended anti-union intimidation... campaigns,” he wrote. Those extended campaigns often involve firing” organizers – in a 2007 study, economists John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer found that “about 1 in 5 union organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their union organizing.” According to John-Paul Ferguson of the Stanford Business School, under duress, 35 percent of petitions filed by workers to hold a union election don't result in one being held (PDF).
A study of employer activities during NLRB administered union campaigns between 1999-2003 by Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner (PDF) found that it was “standard practice for workers to be subjected to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for union activity.”
63%of employers interrogate workers in mandatory one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union;
54% of employers threaten workers in such meetings;
57% of employers threaten to close the worksite;
47% of employers threaten to cut wages and benefits; and
34% of employers fire workers.
Some of that is what labor organizers say happened during an organizing campaign among Target employees at a New York outlet last week. The New York Times reported that according to the UFCW local, workers at the Valley Stream store had endured a “campaign of threats, intimidation and illegal acts by Target management.” UFCW has called on the NLRB to investigate the claim and call for a new election, enforcing a law that would be unenforced entirely were the agency defunded.
Conservatives like to claim they are pro freedom and individual rights. That has become one of the longest running jokes in America. They believe in the power of the economic elite and everyone who is not a member of the plutocracy is wage slave who better not get uppity with their plantation masters.