Interview: Cowboys and Indians
Industrial: Seven Deadly Sins
Unions: The IT Factor
Politics: Bargain Basement
Environment: An Inconvenient Hoax
Corporate: Two Sides
International: Unfair Dismissals
History: A Stitch in Time
Review: The Wind that Shakes the Barley
The Road to Bangalore
A Stitch in Time
Peter Reith scoffed a few years ago at his detractors, pointing out that the "bold" new systems of IR being introduced by Tony Blair made it easy to keep a union out of the workplace by them failing to win more than 50% in a representation ballot. By contrast his system would allow unions to represent members and to access a workplace even if there was only one member on site!!
Whatever the obscurantism that Reith employed in attacking the ACTU in particular, there is not doubt that representation ballots are a minefield for unions, especially when there is low union density across the board. Such processes take a lot of organising and constant campaigning.
Employers in the USA, as Michael Costa explained in Workers Online some years ago http://workers.labor.net.au/67/d_review_costa.html, will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure unions do not win such ballots, and when they do they constantly challenge the results and drag out proceedings for as long as possible, and they tend to have deeper pockets than unions. They also sack organizers and delegates, and although this has been illegal under the National Labor Relations Board legislation, the legal processes again take time and that time is often enough for the employers to derail the organising drive. Fair warning for those who see some sort of salvation in a legislated right have "democracy" in union recognition ballots. We need the right to collective bargain, not a right to vote about it.
Union recognition also raises the issue of which union. The UK under current legislation has seen the rise of bosses unions to undermine legitimate unions such as that of the journalists. The right fort a union to negotiate can also be diverted by management when there is more than one union in a workplace as they then are able to choose the most compliant one, even when another union may have far more members with that employer.
Costa was reviewing the Confessions of a Union Buster from activities in in the 1980s and 1990s. It was not of course a new challenge for unions. A book I recently stumbled over at a garage sale provided personal testimony from women in the textile manufacturing trades in the US in organising attempts in the 1920s and 1930s.
The company "unions" did these workers no favours. (The contributions to the collection are all anonymous):
"My Experience In A Company Mill"
The ------Hosiery Mill situated in the Middle West is one of the largest in the United States. It employs over 3000 workers. I started there June 1929. I signed the Yellow Dog contract not knowing what it was. This read, " I am employed by, and work for, ------Hosiery Mills, Inc. and will not affiliate with any outside organization while employed, nor advise any other employee to do so."
After several working weeks the departmental director came to me and asked me to join the E.M.B.A., the company union. She told me of the benefits, such as group insurance, medical attention, sick benefits, social activities, and protection of the employees against unfair discharge. Membership was 60cents a month, which was deducted from my check. I joined, understanding it was supposed to be protection to me. I filled in an application, and was given a small card signifying I was an E.M.B.A member.
During the first year, I saw girls discharged in a away that seemed unjust and I could not understand why. Upon asking girls why this was, they usually answered "inefficiency" or "not the right kind of spirit." The only reason I could see was that the forelady or foreman did not like these girls. If the girls went to the departmental director, who was supposed to take up all grievances to the E.M.B.A. their troubles were seldom adjusted. She, too, was afraid that if she did take these disputes to the E.M.B.A. she would lose her job. The question in my mind was, what could be done? I soon learned there was no remedy at the time.
In November, it seemed as if the boss was trying to keep something from us. Even girls were secretive. Several weeks later I learned what had happened. Organizers for a hosiery union had been trying to organize knitters into the union but were unsuccessful. The company succeeded in getting an injunction against the organizers and some of the workers for these activities. The knitters were discharged for violating the Yellow Dog Contract. I began to see why things had been so quiet, and realized, too, that the E.M.B.A. and the Yellow Dog Contract were not a protection to us. Conditions remained the same until the adoption of the N.R.A. [National Recovery Administration] code which said workers had the right to collective bargaining."
The knitters kept organizing, with support from the real union and some sacked workers did win reinstatement. Management kept urging all to stick with the E.M.B.A. as "we were all one big happy family".
However the real union grew strong enough to urge that a vote be taken on who were the legitimate representatives of the employees (after many secret meetings at people homes, at the YWCA and at drug stores). Employees were herded through a corridor under the main mill before voting and made to listen to a speech advising them to vote for the E.M.B.A. if they wanted to keep their jobs. The election was in a building across the street from the Mill. The result was in favor of the E.M.B.A 2,016 to 1,054. The result was protested by the hosiery union organizers who claimed only 1700 were eligible to vote but to no avail. They kept organizing however.
"A strike vote was taken April 5th in protest of the election held in October. Over 1000 employees walked out. We wore placards on our hats and clothes indicating striker. A crew of 46 police had been sent to the strike district. They were friendly with us strikers, and told us we were right in demanding our rights. Later they changed their attitude when strikers clashed with "thugs" or strike breakers imported by the company. These thugs carried ax handles, hammers, and guns, which they used to threaten strikers. In these clashes our strikers were arrested and sent to jail for inciting a riot. The thugs were hired to take the scabs to and from work.
Another worker, another company
"The day after the union organizers got in town, the company officials called a meeting of all employees in the shop. The purpose of this meeting was to organize a company union and throw all the mud on the labor union without giving it a showing. Not more than a dozen in the whole group had ever heard of a labor union, so naturally they voted for the side that was represented to them. Then the Yellow Dog Contract was passed around and we were told to sign before we left.
Things moved on for a week or two. People were soon in corners whispering. Nobody said anything to you unless they knew which side you were on. Bitter resentment among the workers sprang up. Life long friendships were broken up. Your job and Friday afternoon's paycheck were the key words."
A yellow-dog contract is an agreement between an employer and an employee in which the employee agrees, as a condition of employment, not to be a member of a labor union whilst employed. 1932, yellow-dog contracts were outlawed in the United States under the Norris-LaGuardia Act. Some US academics and employers want them brought back. The signing of an AWA in Australia mirrors the yellow dog contract.
These quotes are from I Am a Woman Worker edited by Andria Taylor Hourwich and Gladys L. Palmer published by Arno Press, New York 1974 as part of a series called Women in America: from Colonial Times to the 20th Century. The original collection was issued in 1936 by The Affiliated School for Workers, Inc., New York.
The 1974 version notes that:
"The New Deal and the NRA Code [followed by the Wagner Act] were part of a revival of trade union activism in the USA. It also gave impetus to workers' education in the US and revived the liks between working women and groups of women's colleges. Key places included the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Working Women, the School for Workers in Industry at the University of Wisconsin and the Vineyard Shore Workers School on the Hudson in New York State. Joined as the Affiliated Schools for Workers, they reached out to working women in the garment shops, textile plants and retail stores and brought them to summer sessions, institutes, weekends and formal classes. There they were taught history and economics, were trained in leadership and strengthened in their resolves by group discussion of personal histories."
One of the original editors, Andria Taylor Hourwich wrote that "a valuable by-product of the Summer Schools for Workers" was "the incentive to speak and write". ..."Workers are far too bust and engrossed in their daily industrial lives to worry about every phrase, every comma.... They live, and they feel. Many of them, fortunately, can write their stories for other workers, and the very simplicity of their tales is climactic." This is certainly true of this "scrapbook" with all the articles written by and for workers at the frontline.
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