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WHEN workers at multinational company Orchid Orthopedic Solutions tried to form a union, the company quickly brought in five full-time union-busters to torment them day and night.
The hired guns saturated the Bridgeport, Michigan, plant with anti-union messages, publicly belittled union organisers, harangued workers on the shop floor and asked them how they’d feed their families if the plant closed.
The months of endless bullying took their toll, as the company intended, and workers voted against forming the union just to bring the harassment to an end.
“Fear was their main tactic,” recalled Duane Forbes, one of the workers, who campaigned for a union noting the union-busters not only threatened the future of the plant but warned the company would eliminate his colleagues’ jobs and healthcare during a labour dispute. “Fear is the hardest thing to overcome.”
Legislation now before the US Congress would ensure that corporations never trample workers’ rights like this again.
The Protecting the Right to Organise (Pro) Act will free American workers to build better lives and curtail the scorched-earth campaigns that employers wage to keep unions out at any cost.
The Pro Act, backed by President Joe Biden and pro-worker majorities in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, will impose stiff financial penalties on companies that retaliate against organisers and require the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) to fast-track legal proceedings for workers suspended or fired for union activism. It also empowers workers to file their own civil lawsuits against employers that violate their labour rights.
The legislation will bar employers from permanently replacing workers during labour disputes, eliminating a threat that companies like Orchid Orthopedic often use to thwart organising campaigns.
And the Pro Act will empower the NLRB to force corporations into bargaining with workers if they interfere in union drives. That means an end to the mandatory town hall meetings that employers regularly use to disparage organised labour and hector workers into voting against unions.
Orchid Orthopedic’s union-busters forced Duane Forbes and his colleagues into hour-long browbeating sessions once or twice a week for months – and that was on top of the daily, one-on-one bullying the workers endured on the production floor.
“There was nowhere to go,” Forbes, who’s worked at Orchid Orthopedic for 22 years, said of the relentless intimidation. “You couldn’t just go to work and do your job anymore.”
A growing number of American workers, many of whom have seen unions step up to protect members during the Covid-19 pandemic, seek the safe working conditions and other protections they can only achieve by organising.
That includes Forbes and his colleagues, who endured years of benefit cuts but still put their lives on the line for the company during the pandemic.
They launched an organising drive to secure a voice in the workplace. They also sought job protections to prevent the company from discarding them “like a broken hammer” – as one worker, Mike Bierlein, put it – when it’s done with them.
But as more American workers seek the benefits of union membership, employers’ escalating attacks on labour rights make the Pro Act ever more important.
Corporations drop hundreds of millions of dollars every year on “union-avoidance consultants” – like the ones Forbes and Bierlein encountered – to coach them on how to thwart organising campaigns.
The higher the stakes, the dirtier employers play. Tech giants Google and Amazon have used their vast technology and wealth to propel union-busting to a new level.
Google not only electronically spied on workers it suspected of having union sympathies, but rigged its computer systems to prevent them from sharing calendars and virtual meeting rooms.
Amazon have developed plans for special software to track unions and other so-called “threats” to the company’s wellbeing. In Alabama, where thousands of Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama recently voted against forming a union after a sustained anti-union campaign, the company showed anti-union videos and PowerPoints at mandatory meetings, posted propaganda in bathroom cubicles and sent multiple harassing text messages to every worker every day.
“It really opened my eyes to what’s going on,” Bierlein, who’s worked at Orchid Orthopedic for 18 years, said of the unfair tactics his company employed against organisers. “The deck is stacked against workers.”
The Pro Act will help to level the playing field and arrest the decades-long erosion of labour rights that significantly accelerated under the previous, anti-worker Trump administration.
It will require employers to post notices informing workers of their labour rights, helping to ensure managers respect the law. The legislation will enable prospective union members to vote on union representation on neutral sites instead of workplaces where the threat of coercion looms.
And the Pro Act will make it more difficult for employers to deliberately misclassify employees as “contractors” with fewer labour rights. That change will give millions of gig workers, including those driving for shared-ride and food-delivery companies, the opportunity to form unions and fight for better futures.
Right now, employers often stall negotiations for a first contract to punish workers for organising or frustrate them into giving up.
The Pro Act will curb these abuses by requiring mediation and binding arbitration when companies drag talks out.
Orchid Orthopedic’s campaign of intimidation and deception lasted until the very end of the union campaign. As the vote on organising neared, Forbes said, the company promised it would treat workers better in the future if they decided against the union.
Instead, after the vote fell short, the company quickly increased the cost of spousal health insurance. That left Forbes more convinced than ever that workers need changes like those promised in the Pro Act to seize control of their destinies.
“I’m all about right and wrong,” Forbes said, “and the way we were treated was wrong.”
Tom Conway is international president of United Steelworkers USA & Canada.
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