JEFF COHEN AND NORMAN SOLOMON:
If you doubt that the freedom to voluntarily join a labor union is a basic human right, think back about a dozen years.
That's when President Reagan waxed eloquent about the right of workers in Poland to form unions. American pundits and editorial writers loudly hailed the right of Polish workers to join the Solidarity union.
But that was then.
Today, most U.S. media are quiet about another country where the right to organize unions has virtually disappeared. It's a country where workers are often spied on, threatened or fired when they try to launch unions. It's a country known as the United States of America--or perhaps that should be "the Union-busting States of America."
Media outlets tend to serve up parades and platitudes about the value of labor but you don't hear much outrage about American workers losing the right to form unions.
It's a nationwide story easy to document through first-hand accounts -- the kind of people-oriented news that media, especially TV, seem to love. Yet you've probably never heard of:
-- Connie McMillan, a psychiatric nurse in Alabama. Last January, she hosted a private meeting in her living room where 13 nurses signed union cards. Two days later, the hospital fired 10 of them. "It's our right to belong to a union," said McMillan. "I can't believe this is happening."
-- Lew Hubble, a Kmart warehouseman in Illinois. He and some colleagues convinced a majority of their co-workers to vote to form a union. But at great cost: Spies hired by Kmart spent months reporting not only on their union activities, but also intimate details of their personal and family lives.
"The first union meeting I ever went to I went with the undercover investigator, the spy, and I didn't know what he was," said Hubble, a 30-year Kmart employee. "It's the kind of thing you'd expect in a Communist country....You don't expect this in the United States."
-- Betty Dumas, a pipefitter at Louisiana's Avondale shipyards. Uniting across racial lines in 1993, shipyard workers voted to form a union by a 500-vote margin. Years later, they have no union--because Avondale is contesting the election and simply refuses to recognize the union. Workers claim they've been threatened, harassed and fired for supporting the union.
"When you vote for President, once he's voted in, he's given a seat," says Dumas, who once saw a co-worker crushed to death by a 2-ton piece of steel. "Why is it taking so long for the union to come in?" Seven Avondale workers have died in shipyard accidents in the last three years.
Avondale pay-stubs once conveyed a chilling message: "The squeaking wheel doesn't always get the grease. Sometimes it gets replaced."
-- Martin Levitt, a former corporate consultant and author of Confessions of a Union Buster. For 20 years, he provided the brain, brawn and payoffs to "independent" committees of workers willing to lead the fight against formation of a union. "The only way to bust a union," says Levitt, "is to lie, distort, manipulate, threaten and always, always attack."
-- Kara Holman, a Louisville nurse. Because of her union activity at the Audubon hospital, she and another nurse assert they were "blacklisted" from other employment. According to the testimony of a former Audubon manager, the hospital's human resources director warned a second hospital that the nurses were "union red-hots" and that "you probably don't want them working for you."
-- Florence Hill, a 60-year-old textile worker in Georgia. She testified at a federal hearing last year that Highland Yarn Mills repeatedly harassed her and her husband during a union election campaign. "When I'd go to the bathroom, the supervisor would follow me," Hill stated under oath. "And then pornographic pictures, things I had never dreamed of before, were placed in my drawers--and notes placed all over the mill insinuating that I was having an affair with another man."
Recalled Hill, nearly in tears: "The stress got so bad that I had a heart attack."
These personal stories of union-busting are so vivid that it's remarkable how rarely they're explored in national media. Thankfully, all these accounts and more are presented in an exceptional TV documentary, "Ties That Bind," which aired this Labor Day weekend on over 100 PBS stations.
It is illegal--in theory at least--for companies to harass or fire workers for union activity, or to refuse to recognize a union supported by a majority of the workers. The hard-fought right to form unions was established in the 1930s during the New Deal and the tumultuous battles for industrial unionism.
But law-breaking is now common in American workplaces, and corporations that engage in chronic union-busting activities are often just slapped on the wrist by the National Labor Relations Board or the courts. It's telling that the same corporate interests lobbying successfully in Washington to undo decades of consumer, environmental and safety regulations don't want any changes at all in labor law or enforcement.
In "Ties That Bind"--a documentary from the producers of the public TV series We Do The Work"--spokespersons for employers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce insist that "labor law" works just fine and that no reform is needed.
Workplace issues could be dramatically explored on television, but even PBS is wary. "Ties That Bind" launches the sixth season of We Do The Work, the unique series that has progressed without support from PBS at the national level, and without a penny from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The Washington bureaucrats who run "public" broadcasting show little interest in programming that addresses the job-related concerns of the vast majority of Americans who work for a salary or wage.
But if you're among the small minority of Americans who are active investors on Wall Street, PBS stations offer you not one, not two, but many regular programs for your viewing pleasure.
In the 1980s, when Lech Walesa led Poland's Solidarity union against a corrupt Communist regime that outlawed independent unions, he was canonized by U.S. news media.
Today, many American workers are fighting for the democratic right to organize unions. Yet there's little enthusiasm in mainstream media for these American heroes.
THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST