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Should Joining a Union Be a Civil Right?

A new book, "Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right," shows how workers can press for real penalties against bosses who fire them for trying to unionize.

In 2010 Philadelphia’s first and only casino opened in North Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, pressed against the shore of the Delaware River. During the protracted wrangling over the construction of Sugarhouse, the owners swore that their business would create hundreds of good, stable jobs in a part of town known for rusting factories and chronic joblessness.

Cory Ballard, a 25-year-old resident of Strawberry Mansion, a nearby neighborhood, and single father of two sons, got a job as a player’s services representative, a position he describes as the “frontlines of the casino.” He was well-liked by co-workers and managers both.

The latter half of that equation quickly changed when Ballard and many of his co-workers signed a petition in support of a union organizing drive with UNITE HERE local 54, which represents casino workers in the region.

He wasn’t initially a union supporter, but management’s tactics seemed fishy. “They had these anti-union meetings, to tell us why we don’t need a union, but they never give the opposing side, so I sought my own information and decided the union was best for me,” Ballard told reporters outside the Sugarhouse offices last Tuesday.

Management’s attitude toward Ballard quickly soured after they learned of his pro-union stance and he was soon asked to resign after the company alleged he gave free slot play to someone he knew and claimed he would do jail time if he did not resign. He won his job back soon afterwards (with the help of co-workers who marched into management’s office to demand he return to work), and Ballard returned with a union button. He was fired at the beginning of 2012 for a minor error, one that multiple employees made, and which he immediately reported to his boss. Ballard was the only one terminated.

“[This] is typical of what happens in union organizing drives: Even though the National Labor Relations Act makes it illegal to discriminate against someone based on whether or not they support a union,” says Richard Kahlenberg, co-author with Moshe Marvit of the new book, Why Labor Organizing Should be a Civil Right. “[Companies] don’t want to have to share productivity gains with their employees, they’d rather keep it for management and the stockholders. Firms…want to send a message to employees that they will be fired if they get involved in union organizing.”

At a recent action in his support, Ballard presented Sugarhouse’s management with a petition for his reinstatement signed by two-thirds of his co-workers in the player’s services department. A group of his former colleagues and a local minister marched into the Casino’s executive offices to present his former bosses with the signatures. “Cory was one of the best co-workers we had,” one current Sugarhouse employee told a manager. “It’s outrageous and wrong. We know that it could happen to any one of us.”

Six other strong union supporters, who have taken leadership positions on the organizing committee  have been fired since the campaign went public, although never explicitly for their union support. The casino’s media representatives say that the company “does not comment on individual personnel matters.”

“It is unjust and unlawful for them to terminate me for my union support,” Ballard says. “This is my federal right to express myself and decide I want a union. But people are actually afraid to stand up and speak because they are afraid this could happen to them.”

And that’s the point. Contemporary American businesses show little compunction at breaking the central pillar of American labor relations, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and firing workers who express a desire for representation. Terminate a few prominent union supports, let fear keep the rest of the workforce in check, and let the vast majority of profits flow to management and shareholders, instead of to the workers who create them. A recent study by Kate Brofennbrenner of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, shows that employees are fired in more than one in three union organizing drives. And that may be an underestimate. By Bronfenbrenner’s accounting less than half of unfair labor practices (firings, wage cuts, harassment, and surveillance) are reported, often because the remaining employees fear further reprisals.