Media Beat, Aug. 31, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
USA: Union-busting States of America
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 Ronald 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 in which 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.
On Labor Day weekend, media outlets tend to serve up parades and platitudes about the value of labor. You don't hear much outrage about American workers losing the right to form unions.
It's a nationwide story easy to document through firsthand 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 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.''
Betty Dumas, a pipe fitter 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 say they've been threatened, harassed and fired for supporting the union.
''Why is it taking so long for the union to come in?'' asks Dumas, who once saw a co-worker crushed to death by a 2-ton piece of steel. Seven Avondale workers have died in shipyard accidents in the last three years.
Avondale paycheck stubs once conveyed a chilling message: ''The squeaking wheel doesn't always get the grease. Sometimes it gets replaced.''
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 were 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 began airing this Labor Day weekend on 130 public television 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. But law-breaking is common in American workplaces, and corporations that engage in union-busting are often just slapped on the wrist by the National Labor Relations Board or the courts.
In ''Ties That Bind'' -- a documentary from the producers of the public TV series ''We Do the Work'' -- representatives for employers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce insist that ''labor law'' works just fine and that no reform is needed.
It's revealing 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.
During the 1980s, when Lech Walesa led Poland's Solidarity union against a corrupt Communist regime that outlawed independent unions, he was canonized by the biggest 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.