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In the Face of Fear

STILL FIGHTING | Tracy Plante, an LPN at Walker Methodist Health Center in Minneapolis, says management harassed her — and other workers — to try to prevent them from building a union.

Minnesota Workers Battle Fierce Employer Resistance

By Clyde Weiss

STILL FIGHTING | Tracy Plante, an LPN at Walker Methodist Health Center in Minneapolis, says management harassed her — and other workers — to try to prevent them from building a union.

Tracy Plante, a single mother of four children, ages 7 to 21, just wanted to improve her workplace. Instead, she and her co-workers faced intimidation — and worse — from an employer who has used nearly every trick in the book to oppose their efforts to form a union.

A licensed practical nurse (LPN) at Walker Methodist Health Center, which provides services to seniors in Minneapolis, Plante has been harassed by management for her union activism, so she knows what fear on the job really means. Unbowed, she remains willing to speak out.

“I have a responsibility to my children,” explains Plante. “I tell them, ‘Stand up for what’s right.’ How can I expect my children to do that if I don’t do that myself?”

Plante is among some 500 workers at Walker who are seeking a voice on the job by forming a union with Council 5. Most of the agency’s staff — 61 percent, including dietary, laundry and janitorial workers — voted to join Local 3532 in 2003, despite management’s efforts to intimidate them into voting no. Yet — four years later — the workers are still waiting for management to recognize their union! In a clear demonstration of how the NLRB election process is often hijacked by employers to frustrate the desire of their workers to organize, Walker’s management appealed to the NLRB, demanding another election. The case was still pending as AFSCME WORKS went to press.

About 70 LPNs, including Plante, also voted in 2003 on whether to join the council. But their union ballots were immediately sealed when Walker appealed to the NLRB, contending the nurses are supervisors and therefore not entitled to union representation — a position that AFSCME rejects. This January, the Minneapolis office of the NLRB ruled in favor of the LPNs. Unyielding, Walker has appealed that decision, too. Once again, justice delayed is justice denied.

In addition to those union-busting tactics, Walker has filed unjustified disciplinary measures against several employees who were active in the union campaign. Plante was one of them. She fought back, filing an unfair labor practices charge with the NLRB. In November 2003, management agreed to an out-of-court settlement. However — highlighting how easily employers avoid serious penalties for violating federal labor law — Walker merely rescinded the disciplinary actions and posted notices for 60 days acknowledging that Plante’s citations had been erased from her record. The notices also read, in part, “We will not issue disciplinary warnings to employees because they are engaged in union or other protected activities.”

Management also intimidated other union activists, placing them under close scrutiny. Plante says some were even offered promotions to supervisory positions so they couldn’t join the union. In that way, she explains, “they were able to break up the union organizing committee.”

Unfair Tactics

DEMANDING JUSTICE | In an effort to pressure Walker Methodist Health Center to recognize AFSCME as their chosen union, busloads of employees marched through south Minneapolis in 2003. Although they earned the support of nursing home residents and community groups, their fight to gain a voice on the job continues.

Most of Walker’s employees remain fearful of retaliation to this day. Among them is “John,” who agreed to describe management’s harassment of union activists on the condition that his real name not be published.

Once management got wind of the employees’ efforts to form a union with AFSCME, he says, workers received anti-union circulars, and also were pressed to attend meetings where management would tell them lies about the union. “They’d say things like, ‘If you have a union, you don’t have a direct line to talk to management — you’ve got to go through the union,” he recalls.

John recounts how he and others who openly supported the union were followed by managers who noted “what time I took my break, what time I came back, who I talked to.”

His co-workers noticed, too: “When I was in the break room, everybody said they didn’t want to be seen with me because they would be affiliated with the union, and their jobs could be in danger.”

Although their campaign is tied up at the NLRB, Walker’s frustrated employees battle on, committed to winning their union. “I’m fighting for the right thing,” John explains, “and that’s what employees want. I’ve got to keep on going.”

A Better Way

HAPPY DAYS | “Everyone wants to work here now” following a successful majority sign-up campaign at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center-Orange County, Calif., says Asela Espíritu RN, a member of United Nurses 

Nationally, more than 150,000 workers joined unions in 2005 through majority sign-up, which levels the playing field between employees and their employers. That is, once a majority of a workforce signs union support cards — and those cards are validated by a neutral party — the employer recognizes the union. The employer, hopefully, also agrees not to interfere with the workers’ choice through tactics like worker intimidation. The result — once a union is established and a contract negotiated — can often be good relations between labor and management. That’s what has happened with the 1,200 employees of Lifespire Inc.

A New York City non-profit human services agency, Lifespire provides services to the developmentally disabled. In February 2005, their employees — direct care workers — began a creative and determined campaign to build a union with the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA)/AFSCME Local 1000. Although the employer at first resisted, the workers spent months building strong support among community and religious groups, and elected officials from throughout New York City.

By December 2005, the employees had reached an agreement with the employer: Lifespire promised to remain neutral during the campaign and agreed to recognize the union if there was majority worker support. The workers won their union — the largest private-sector unit ever to join AFSCME’s biggest affiliate. Last December, the workers achieved another victory: their first contract!

Carmen J. Ortiz, a Lifespire counselor for more than two years, says she appreciated an organizing campaign where the rules were fair and not stacked against the workers. “I give my name upfront — no hiding. When they count that card, that’s about as secure as I can think of,” she says.

Once union negotiations were done and a contract signed, a partnership with the agency was formed to advocate for more funding for the services they provide. Mark van Voorst, the company’s chief executive officer, said, “Lifespire looks forward to partnering with CSEA to bring improvements to New York’s service delivery system.” Added Bob Krakow, chairman of the Lifespire Board of Directors, “We are particularly pleased that CSEA has joined Lifespire as a partner” in advancing its mission.

CSEA Pres. Danny Donohue, who is also an International vice president, says the union “is committed to keeping New York’s care for individuals with developmental disabilities the model for the nation. We are so proud of our members at Lifespire and their management’s recognition that fairness and respect for the workers goes hand in hand with quality care for the individuals they serve.”

Another successful AFSCME majority sign-up campaign involved employees of Kaiser Permanente Medical Center-Orange County in Anaheim, Calif. Management agreed to recognize their union if a majority signed up, and Kaiser remained neutral during the campaign. Within three months of launching their organizing effort, the workers joined United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals/NUHHCE/AFSCME. “Everyone wants to work here now,” says Asela Espiritu, a registered nurse at Kaiser Permanente, who did not have to endure any harassment or intimidation to win a voice on the job through her union. “Nurses say, ‘I want to be a nurse at Kaiser.’ Our vacancy rate is at an all-time low. We are among the highest paid nurses in the county. It’s not just about the benefits either. It’s about the nurse-to-patient ratio we were able to get through Kaiser and the union working together.”

By giving employees the right to build a union through a fair process — and by imposing stricter punishments for employers who violate it — the Employee Free Choice Act will give more employees what they deserve: dignity, respect and a voice on the job.

A Rough Road

This is why it’s so difficult for workers to form unions.

  • 30% of employers fire pro-union workers.
  • 91% of employers force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with their supervisors.
  • 51% of employers coerce workers into opposing unions with bribes or special favors.
  • 49% of employers threaten to close a worksite when workers try to form a union, but only 2 percent actually do.
  • 82% of employers hire union-busting consultants to fight union organizing drives.

Source: Chirag Mehta and Nik Theodore, Undermining the Right to Organize: Employer Behavior During Union Representation Campaigns, Center for Urban Economic Development, University of Illinois at Chicago, December 2005.

For more on the Employee Free Choice Act, and to learn how you can take action and help make it law, visit afscme.organd

We Need the ‘Employee Free Choice Act’ Now

Polls say 60 million workers would join a union if they could. But employer opposition continues to stand in their way.

To level the playing field between workers and management during private-sector organizing campaigns, employees have used majority sign-up (sometimes called card check), in which they win their union if a majority of workers attest in writing that they want one. This avoids costly, management-dominated elections, where workers are intimidated and harassed to vote against the union. In 2005, about 150,000 workers joined unions this way — compared to 70,000 who joined through elections.

Current law says private-sector employers are not required to accept the results of a majority sign-up, and they often refuse as part of their anti-worker, anti-union campaign.

To give employees a fair chance, U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) introduced the Employee Free Choice Act. The legislation, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 1 by a vote of 241 to 185, would allow:

  • Majority sign-up, which enables workers to form unions when a majority formally affirms in writing they want one. Workers could also choose a secret ballot election.
  • A neutral third party to determine a first contract if the employer and employees cannot reach an agreement.
  • Stronger penalties for employers found to have willfully or repeatedly violated employees’ rights during organizing campaigns or first contract drives.

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