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Labor, Business Gird for Battle Over Unions Bill


Labor, Business Gird for Battle Over Unions Bill
Saturday 27 December 2008

by: Evelyn Larrubia, The Los Angeles Times

Union workers in Indiana speak with Obama about labor issues. Unions are preparing for a legislative battle to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. (Photo: Reuters)
The Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier to unionize. Obama says he’d sign the legislation, but the Senate may again reject it.

It is labor’s biggest priority for the new administration: changing federal law to make it easier for workers to unionize - and win contracts with their employers.

Unions, which spent an estimated $450 million to help elect Barack Obama to the presidency and put more Democrats in Congress, want the Employee Free Choice Act passed quickly to begin to reverse decades of declining membership.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has vowed to spend $10 million to defeat the bill.

Obama’s selection of union-friendly Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) as Labor secretary is seen as good news for the bill’s advocates. She has called it “vital legislation.”

Everyone agrees that the fight will be in the Senate, where the measure died last year after passing easily in the House.

Both sides plan to run grass-roots campaigns in key states and have begun airing TV ads, to “educate” the public.

The most controversial provision would require employers to recognize a union once a majority of workers signed membership cards, in what is known as a card-check system.

Companies can, but rarely do, recognize unions under those circumstances. Instead, they typically exercise their right to require an employee election organized by the National Labor Relations Board.

Trauma nurse Sherwood Cox, who worked to defeat two California Nurses Assn. drives at Western Medical Center Santa Ana, said that under the proposed law, he would be unable to keep the union out.

“When it’s actually gone to vote, we’ve gone into the ballot booth and we’ve voted no,” Cox said. “Both times, the union was totally shocked that they lost.”

Under the card-check system, an employer could be surprised to learn that the workplace has gone union overnight.

Business leaders have couched the fight in terms of workers’ privacy rights.

“The American public supports the secret ballot,” said Randy Johnson, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Card checks are subject to abuse.”

An ad produced by the bill’s opponents features an actor from the HBO series “The Sopranos” portraying a mobster-like labor organizer threatening a worker to sign a union card.

“They’re manipulating that,” complained Josh Goldstein, spokesman for American Rights at Work, a nonprofit group that backs the bill. “Our battle right now, before we even get to the horse race on Capitol Hill, is how do we get people talking about this bill the way they should be?”

Card-check proponents have countered with their own television ad. It features a man dreaming of a benevolent boss, only to be awakened by his dog to go off to his presumably lousy job. Goldstein hopes that will get across labor’s message: that unions give employees power at work, helping them obtain better pay and benefits.

Labor leaders say elections hurt unionization efforts because employers use the time leading up to the vote to harass, fire and threaten workers.

Melinda Burns said she was fired from her job after 21 years as a reporter at the Santa Barbara News-Press because she was a newsroom leader who brought in the Teamsters. An administrative judge with the National Labor Relations Board agreed, finding that she was among eight employees fired in violation of labor laws.

The newspaper’s owner, Wendy McCaw, has appealed the decision. Management said the employees were fired for disloyalty or biased reporting.

“What we’ve learned is that you can break the labor law in America and get away with it for a long time,” Burns said.

In fiscal 2007, the NLRB found that 1,771 employees were fired “in violation of their organizational rights” and it got employers to offer to rehire them. More than $124 million in back pay was awarded to the employees.

The proposed bill seeks to increase penalties against employers who violate the law - its least controversial measure, though opponents point out that the penalties against unions would be unchanged.

Of more than 22,000 unfair-labor-practice charges filed with the NLRB in fiscal 2007, about 6,000 were against labor unions. Most alleged illegal restraint and coercion.

“In my campaign to convince people not to organize with the union, they put out a caricature of me as a puppet of management, with wooden legs and wooden arms and squashed nurses dripping off my shoes,” said Cox, the Santa Ana nurse.

He said he fought the union because, as a sought-after trauma nurse, he doesn’t need help from collective bargaining and doesn’t want to pay union dues.

Union officials and nurses involved in the campaign denied sending out the flier with the caricature.

Even when a union is approved through an election, officials say, a hostile employer can drag out contract negotiations for years and ultimately petition to have the union decertified before one’s ever signed.

Complaints of employers illegally refusing to bargain account for 60% of filings with the NLRB. The penalty for failing to negotiate in good faith is to be sent back into negotiations.

The bill’s other chief provision seeks to change that by imposing a first contract through binding federal arbitration if early negotiations and mediation efforts fail.

“We’re never going to turn the authority to run our workplace to a government arbitrator,” said Johnson, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Carlos Rubio, a Rite Aid warehouse worker in Palmdale, said negotiations with his employer over a first contracthave dragged on since he and his co-workers voted to join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in March.

“There are 35 articles on the table. We’ve agreed to four of them,” Rubio said. Rite Aid has agreed to minor provisions, such as what happens if an employee is called into military service, he said, but has not even begun to talk about pay scales and other more meaningful issues.

Labor advocates are pushing hard for the bill because union membership has plummeted, from a high of 35% of the U.S. workforce down to 12% today.

Labor wants the bill introduced in the first 100 days of the Obama administration. But legislators are loath to make such a promise.

“Everybody can’t go through the front door of the White House on the first day,” said Aaron Albright, press secretary for the House Education and Labor Committee, whose chairman introduced the bill. “The economic recovery package is the first thing we’re going to be working on.”

Union officials for weeks have been pushing the Employee Free Choice Act as a needed part of fiscal reform, saying it will create the middle-class jobs necessary to improve the lives of Americans.

Obama has promised to sign the legislation if it’s passed.

But Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara, said acrimony over the proposal makes it a tough issue for Obama to take on right away.

“It’s a rallying point for Republicans,” he said, “and a wedge issue for some Democrats.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This a good article. However, the article fails to note that the thousands of employer charges of “alleged illegal restraint and coercion” against unions are almost always found to be pure BS! They are usually filed to discredit the union during the election process and have zero basis in fact. These “alleged illegal restraint and coercion” charges are solely designed to distort the election process. They are very similar to the Republican voter suppression activities used in general political elections done under the false flag of fighting mythical voter fraud.

Under Bush, OSHA Mired in Inaction


By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2008; Page A01

In early 2001, an epidemiologist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sought to publish a special bulletin warning dental technicians that they could be exposed to dangerous beryllium alloys while grinding fillings. Health studies showed that even a single day’s exposure at the agency’s permitted level could lead to incurable lung disease.

OSHA Memorandum

After the bulletin was drafted, political appointees at the agency gave a copy to a lobbying firm hired by the country’s principal beryllium manufacturer, according to internal OSHA documents. The epidemiologist, Peter Infante, incorporated what he considered reasonable changes requested by the company and won approval from key directorates, but he bristled when the private firm complained again.

“In my 24 years at the Agency, I have never experienced such indecision and delay,” Infante wrote in an e-mail to the agency’s director of standards in March 2002. Eventually, top OSHA officials decided, over what Infante described in an e-mail to his boss as opposition from “the entire OSHA staff working on beryllium issues,” to publish the bulletin with a footnote challenging a key recommendation the firm opposed.

Current and former career officials at OSHA say that such sagas were a recurrent feature during the Bush administration, as political appointees ordered the withdrawal of dozens of workplace health regulations, slow-rolled others, and altered the reach of its warnings and rules in response to industry pressure.

The result is a legacy of unregulation common to several health-protection agencies under Bush: From 2001 to the end of 2007, OSHA officials issued 86 percent fewer rules or regulations termed economically significant by the Office of Management and Budget than their counterparts did during a similar period in President Bill Clinton’s tenure, according to White House lists.

White House officials have dismissed such tallies, emphasizing in recent regulatory overviews that their “objective is quality, not quantity,” and that heavy restrictions on corporations harm economic performance. During Bush’s presidency, they said in a September report, average annual regulatory costs were kept 24 percent lower than during the previous two decades. OSHA says it has issued many rules of lesser consequence that nonetheless clarified industry responsibilities.

But this record has been controversial among occupational health experts and career OSHA staff.

“The legacy of the Bush administration has been one of dismal inaction,” said Robert Harrison, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco and chairman of the occupational health section of the American Public Health Association. It has been “like turning a ketchup bottle upside down, banging the bottom of the container, and nothing comes out. You shake and shake and nothing comes out,” Harrison said.

More than two dozen current and former senior career officials further said in interviews that the agency’s strategic choices were frequently made without input from its experienced hands. Political appointees “shut us out,” a longtime senior career official said.

Among the regulations proposed by OSHA’s staff but scuttled by political appointees was one meant to protect health workers from tuberculosis. Although OSHA concluded in 1997 that the regulation could avert as many as 32,700 infections and 190 deaths annually and save $115 million, it was blocked by opposition from large hospitals.

In the summer, the agency decided against moving further toward the regulation of crystalline silica, the tiny fibrous material in cement and stone dust that causes lung disease or cancer. OSHA promised a scientific peer review of the health risks by early 2005 and then by early 2007, but it never acted. Regulating silica exposures would have prevented an estimated 41 silicosis deaths and 20 to 40 lung cancers annually, according to OSHA.

In the spring, political appointees quietly scrapped work on another long-pending regulation of hazardous exposure to ionizing radiation in mailrooms, food warehouses, and hospitals and airports. It cited “resource constraints and other priorities” ## the same reason officials gave for withdrawing more than a dozen regulatory proposals in 2001….

(Click on link to read the rest of this story.)