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News :: Human Rights : Labor
For Labor Day: Boston-area workers finding new paths to rights and respect
29 Aug 2008
Four examples of how workers in the Boston area have found new paths to organization and the power of a voice at work. A recent study by the U-Mass Donahue Institute documents how the gap between rich and poor has widened substantially in Massachusetts over the past two decades. It showed that only those earning the highest incomes benefited from gains in technology, productivity, and globalization, while working class earnings stagnated and incomes for poor families plunged 15 percent (www.donahue.umassp.edu/publications/index).
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Other studies have shown that union members are faring much better than most workers, even in the face of steep membership decline. That's because union contracts provide job security and protect members' wages and benefits from the worst excesses of corporate greed (learn more at: www.aflcio.org/joinaunion/why/uniondifference).

With that obvious advantage, you'd think there would be a stampede by workers to form unions and gain the advantages of collective bargaining. Opinion polls show this would be true -- except that employer opposition to workplace democracy is so vehement that it is very difficult for workers who want a union to get one. The labor laws passed 70 years ago to protect our basic freedoms of association are simply outdated.

The Employee Free Choice Act would remedy the problem by giving workers a simple one step process to freely choose a union. It would also strengthen penalties for companies that intimidate employees from trying to form unions and provide for mediation and arbitration when employers and workers cannot agree on a first contract (to learn more visit: http://freechoiceact.org).

The labor movement will go "all out" this fall to elect a Congress that will pass labor law reform and a new President who will sign it into law. But union leaders aren't just waiting for the new law to pass. They are using creative tactics and strategies to find ways to help workers gain collective bargaining rights without having to walk the gauntlet of employer threats and intimidation.

Below are four examples of how workers in the Boston area have found new paths to organization and the power of a voice at work.

Verizon Business techs began to organize in late 2006 to win wages and working conditions comparable to their co-workers at Verizon Telecom who are already united in the IBEW and the CWA. Verizon Business (VZB) is a new subsidiary created after Verizon bought the remnants of MCI/WorldCom.

By March 2007, the techs had achieved a solid majority in New York and New England on union membership cards. But management interference was so aggressive that in two separate cases, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued formal complaints against VZB for violating federal labor laws by spying on workers, suppressing free speech in the workplace and issuing illegal warnings to union supporters.

Instead of going through a broken election procedure, the VZB techs sought an alternative route. CWA and IBEW enlisted elected officials in Massachusetts and New York to count the union cards, compare them to a roster of all eligible employees and verify if there was majority support.

In Massachusetts the union cards were counted by Sen. John Kerry, U.S. Reps. Stephen Lynch and John Tierney and Lt. Governor Tim Murray. They verified that 67 percent of the eligible techs wanted to form a union with CWA and IBEW.

Predictably, management refused to recognize the card count. But the VZB techs didn't give up. They reached out to other elected officials, Verizon union members, labor and community groups like Jobs with Justice, customers and the general public for support.

Two techs testified in Congress about how VZB management illustrated the need for the Employee Free Choice Act. Others spoke at political events and at union meetings. VZB techs traveled to two of the company's annual meetings to confront Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg and educate shareholders.

Most importantly, the techs built unity with thousands of Verizon union members who were preparing to bargain with Verizon East management for a new contract. When negotiations began, union leaders made it clear that no contract would be signed unless Verizon addressed the desire of Verizon Business workers to join the unions. (See a YouTube of VZB techs speaking at a Boston rally at www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUGPNtn9XXA.)

A pending arbitration case about VZB techs doing existing bargaining unit work gave the unions additional leverage.

With just hours before a strike deadline at midnight on August 10, management finally agreed to fold about 600 VZB techs into the unions and allow them to benefit from the provisions of the new contract. Now that's bargaining to organize!

For more information about the technicians' organizing campaign, visit www.freechoiceatverizon.com or email rand (at) mindspring.com.

Security officers employed in downtown Boston and Cambridge formed a union with SEIU Local 615. It took three years of rallies, public education and militant actions to win an agreement that their employers would remain neutral and recognize their union if a majority signed union cards. This effort is part of a national "Stand for Security" campaign by SEIU to improve wages and working conditions for guards, most of whom make less than $12 an hour with only skimpy benefits.

To win recognition, Local 615 organizers built broad support with the guards for forming a union. SEIU also won strong backing from many community organizations by linking the security officers' objectives to the overall welfare of Boston's neighborhoods.

Coalition leaders argued that increasing wages would help low-income communities in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, where most of the security guards live. Local 615 estimated that a pay increase of $.50 would add more than $17 million a year to the economy of those communities.

Local 615 also used its relationship with major commercial landlords where service workers already had contracts to put additional pressure on the employers.

The campaign is continuing to hold Boston's large commercial building owners accountable to both invest in their workers and to invest in the neighborhoods where the workers live.

The guards are now in negotiations with top managers at Securitas, Allied Barton, Northeast Security and a few other big firms. They hope to win their first union contracts this fall, raising pay and benefit standards for all security officers. The campaign is also putting pressure on the remaining non-union security contractors, including Palladian, Apollo and USI to respect workers' rights.

For more information about the security officers' campaign, visit http://standformasecurity.org and http://massclu.org.

Personal care attendants (PCAs) in Massachusetts formed a union with 1199SEIU to fight for better wages, health benefits, paid time off and improved quality of care for their clients.

About 22,000 home health assistants are hired to provide assistance that enables people with disabilities to continue to live in the community and at home. They are paid directly by the state's Medicaid program, Mass Health.

Current pay for the attendants is only $10.84 an hour. PCAs receive no health care benefits, no paid sick days, no vacation days, and no way to take a day off when a family member is ill or dies.

Working with client families and advocates for seniors and people with disabilities, the home care workers built broad support for having a collective voice on the job and the need to make significant improvements in home care services. The coalition passed a law last year that created the Quality Home Care Workforce Council (a new employer for the purposes of collective bargaining) and enabling the health care workers to vote on union membership.

The vote for unionizing passed overwhelmingly last fall. Union officials report that they are very close to reaching a first contract with the state that will provide significant improvements in pay, benefits and working conditions.

For more information about the PCA's, visit http://pcavoice.org

Boston cab drivers formed a new union with the United Steel Workers last year when hundreds of cabbies showed up to make their voices heard at work by joining the Boston Area Taxi Drivers Association. The cab drivers are classified as independent contractors and receive no unemployment, health care or worker's compensation coverage and are being increasingly squeezed by escalating gas prices.

Drivers report that the average Boston taxi driver who doesn't own a medallion has to make $10 an hour just to break even, covering the $7 to lease a cab and $3 for gas. This forces drivers to work long hours. Many work six 12-hour shifts a week.

Because the drivers are considered independent contractors and not employees, they cannot join a union and collectively bargain under the National Labor Relations Act. However, through the Association, they have gained a powerful voice with Mayor Menino and Commissioner Davis on political and legislative matters that impact their jobs. They have been responsive and taken an active role to help better the lives of taxi drivers. The drivers have used their organization to press for meter rate increases needed to keep up with the rising costs of gas and tolls, changes in Hackney Unit rules and regulations, and a Taxi Driver's Bill of Rights.

Like the PCA's, the drivers hope to establish a new employer entity so that they can begin collective bargaining for a union contract.

For more information about the Taxi Drivers Association visit http://usw.org/btda or call (877) 511-8792.

Verizon technicians, security officers, personal care attendants and taxi drivers have all followed non-traditional routes to power. They are winning by using creative tactics and strategies. In each case, they have allied themselves with already powerful unions and enlisted support from community groups and politicians. But when all is said and done, these workers (and most others) have also succeeded by staying true to well-tested principles of unionism: "An injury to one is an injury to all," and "In unity there is strength." On Labor Day, their example restores everyone's faith in labor's rallying cry of "Solidarity forever!"

* Rand Wilson is Communications Coordinator for the AFL-CIO Organizing Department's Center for Strategic Research.
See also:
http://www.aflcio.org/joinaunion/why/uniondifference
http://freechoiceact.org

This work is in the public domain.
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