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Reaching a milestone for worker's rights
with so much work aheads

Organizing for the Right to Unionize

Stewart Acuff
Washington D.C.

Stewart Acuff is AFL-CIO Organizing Director.

Managements reaction was swift and aggressive when we decided to take matters into our own hands and form a union with AFCSME, said Michael Babarsky, a registered nurse in Chicago, Illinois for more than twenty years, who spoke at a recent briefing on Capitol Hill. Myself and six of my co-workers who were union supporters were fired, he said.

Before being fired, Michael said that he also endured mandatory one-on-one intimidation meetings with supervisors and groups meetings against his union that would sometimes last for hours, simply for trying to form a union to win reduced nurse-patient staffing ratios, higher wages, and a say in his working conditions. Four other current or former registered nurses joined Michael at the briefing with similar stories. Unfortunately, these are the kinds of stories that happen to workers every single day.

The current processes by which workers form unions in the United States are broken. For example, the number of workers awarded back pay because they were illegally discharged or discriminated against for trying to form a union skyrocketed from fewer than 1,000 per year in the 1950s to 20,000 per year by the late 1990s, according to Human Rights Watch, an internationally respected human rights organization.

We all pay the price when workers are unable to form unions because workplaces discrimination increases, race and gender wage income gaps widen, and job safety standards disappear.

In Michael's case, the National Labor Relations Board investigated these and other instances of threats and intimidation, and issued a complaint against the employer listing 20 violations. Yet, nine months later, the only remedy was for management to post notices in some of the hospitals promising not to violate the law again. That is why Michael was on the Hill supporting the Employee Free Choice Act.

In an incredible milestone, more than 200 members of Congress (and 31 United States Senators) have already signed-on as co-sponsors to the Employee Free Choice Act to help workers like Michael. This bill will allow workers to form unions through a majority verification process (also known as card-check), allow either party to seek mediation and arbitration when employers refuse to negotiate fairly with workers when they attempt to secure a first contract, and enforce stricter penalties when employers violate the law.

There is clearly strong, bipartisan support for legislation to restore the freedom to form unions. This support was accomplished with a real grassroots national effort with the action of tens of thousands of workers, starting on December 10, International Human Rights Day, when 35,000 workers and their allies rallied across the country to draw public attention to the fact that workers have lost their right to form unions in America. Since then, several dozen workers have shared with their elected officials first-hand accounts of the opposition they face when they try to form a union at their workplace.

In addition, next week hundreds of thousands of workers and their allies will participate in a Worksite Week of Action, from June 28-July 4. During this week, participants will send more than 100,000 postcards thanking Senator Kerry for his support of the Employee Free Choice Act and to President Bush urging him to take a position in support of the legislation.

Restoring the freedom to form unions will allow millions of Americas workers to improve their lives and the lives and futures of their kids. In order to succeed, every one of us needs to continue our efforts to support workers in our communities when they try to form unions and encourage our elected leaders to support fundamental change in labor law.

Only then, will our movement be able to answer the important question: "What did they do when faced with the incontrovertible fact that Americas workers had lost the right to organize?" They fought, they worked hard, and they believed.

Published in In Motion Magazine - June 29, 2004