Workday Minnesota

Wal-Mart Has Perfected the Art of Union-Busting

Want to understand why so many American workers find it so hard to organize unions in their workplaces? Look no further than Wal-Mart, a researcher for Human Rights Watch says.

Wal-Mart is a case study "of the abysmal workers' rights regime we have here in the United States," said Carol Pier, senior researcher on labor rights and trade for Human Rights Watch, an independent, nongovernmental organization that investigates human rights violations around the world.

In a speech last week at the University of Minnesota, Pier described her two-and-one-half-year study of Wal-Mart's labor-management record, which culminated in a 210-page report, issued in 2007, titled "Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart's Violation of U.S. Workers' Right to Freedom of Association."

The report found that while many American companies use weak U.S. laws to stop workers from organizing, the retail giant stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus. Many of its anti-union tactics are lawful in the United States, though they combine to undermine workers' rights. Others run afoul of soft U.S. laws.

"I like to think about it as a 'death by small cuts' strategy," Pier told the audience gathered at the University of Minnesota Law School. "And the effect is devastating."

In the course of her research, Pier interviewed dozens of current and former Wal-Mart "associates" (the term the company uses for its employees) and supervisors in six states and pored through thousands of pages of material from the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces U.S. labor law.

Wal-Mart uses a subtle form of union-busting that starts with new employee orientation, where training includes watching an anti-union video, Pier said. The corporation has a 24-hour hotline for managers to report any signs of union organizing activity and a "labor relations team" is quickly dispatched to assess the situation.

Depending on the level of union activity, workers may be subjected to mandatory "captive audience" meetings where they are lectured on the evils of unionism. In some stores, Wal-Mart has crossed the line from subtle to heavy-handed by conducting surveillance on employees, disciplining and firing some.

When those actions are taken – clearly in violation of U.S. labor law – the failings of the system become clear, Pier said. Wal-Mart takes advantage of the exceedingly slow NLRB process to draw out cases for years. When a worker finally wins a case, the company faces no penalty – other than the requirement to reinstate the worker with back pay (minus anything he or she earned in other employment) and to post a notice saying "they won't do it again."

With nearly 1 million employees in the United States, Wal-Mart is the country's largest private employer. Yet none of these workers belongs to a union. Employees at two stores in Quebec, Canada, finally won union representation, but both stores have been closed – the second one earlier this month.

The International Labor Organization has cited the lack of penalties – and the fact that workers can be "permanently replaced" if they strike – as reasons that U.S. labor law fails to meet international human rights standards, Pier said.

The proposed Employee Free Choice Act – supported by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and many Congressional Democrats – would address some of the shortcomings in U.S. labor law by levying fines of up to $20,000 for each violation and permitting workers to choose union representation by signing cards, bypassing the drawn-out NLRB election process during which many employer violations occur.

Still, Pier worries the new law would not be effective without a broader campaign to improve people's knowledge of unions. Companies like Wal-Mart could still continue the kind of early union-busting – such as showing videos during employee orientation – that create a chilling climate for organizing.

"EFCA will help," Pier said of the proposed legislation. "EFCA's necessary. I don't think it's the fix."

Pier's talk was sponsored by The Institute for Global Studies and the University of

Minnesota's Human Rights Program and co-sponsored by the Labor Education Service, publisher of Workday Minnesota.

For more information

Read Pier's report, "Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart's Violation of U.S. Workers' Right to Freedom of Association," http://hrw.org/reports/2007/us0507/.


Exploited Guestworkers March on White House

Chanting, "All the way to the White House!" and carrying signs, saying "I Am A Man," more than 70 Indian guest workers rallied at the White House gates Monday in a cold rain to demand fundamental changes in the nation's guest worker program, which business interests want to expand.

They also want a congressional investigation of their former employer, Signal International, a marine construction company they say held them in modern-day forced labor in its Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard.

Jagpal Yadav, one of the former workers at the shipyard, said the workers were exploited first by unscrupulous recruiters and then by the company.

"In India, we paid $20,000 to recruiters who promised permanent residency and citizenship," he said. "When we came here, we found out all the promises were false--there were never any green cards. There were just prison-like conditions. We lived as if in a jail, 24 people to a room. We had no place to sit or stand. We slept in bunkbeds stacked on top of each other. The man in the top bunk couldn't even sit up straight because his head would hit the ceiling. The conditions were degrading."

Sony Suleka, an organizer with the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity and a former Signal worker, said the company "took away our hopes and dreams and shattered us mentally. Now we are asking the U.S. government to investigate Signal and put an end to this system of modern-day slavery."

The action at the White House kicked off a week of meetings the immigrant workers will hold with members of Congress and staff, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

On March 18, the workers embarked on a "satyagraha," or truth action, in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, traveling from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., to reveal the truth of the guest worker program.

As part of their journey, workers met with allies from the African American and labor rights communities in key sites in the civil rights struggle, including Jackson, Miss.; Selma, Ala.; Atlanta; and Greensboro, N.C. The "I Am A Man" signs the workers carried in front of the White House echoed those carried by striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed 40 years ago this week helping them in their struggle to gain recognition for their union.

Guest workers typically are deeply in debt by the time they arrive in the United States, where the companies that hire them often charge additional fees for boarding, food and expenses. The workers charge the recruiters and the employer threatened, coerced and defrauded them into paying additional money and altered contracts, which they forced the workers to accept under threat of losing their passports and visas. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States, relates that it is not unusual for guest workers to pay huge fees to obtain a seasonal guest worker position.

Yadav said the workers, who, along with other immigrant rights activists, briefed congressional staff Tuesday on the need to reform the guest worker program, want Congress to make fundamental changes to the H-2B system.

After the staff briefing, House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said in a statement, "We must make certain that there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect all workers -- both U.S. workers and guest workers -- from exploitation. Strong labor standards that are vigorously enforced are essential to prevent employers from driving down wages and hurting our economy. Until we have stronger protections for both U.S. workers and foreign guest workers, I cannot support increasing the size of the guest worker program."

Last week, the workers met with the Indian ambassador to brief him on their struggle. At a rally near the embassy in Washington, D.C., former worker Aniesh Thankachan gave a tearful account of the pain of being separated from his family.

"You see these pictures? These are our families," he said. "They are the reason we came here. We were told that we would be able to bring our families on permanent residency visas. Once we came here, we learned that these promises were false. I cry at night. I can't tell my family what's going on. I listen to my children on the phone and I weep. Our families are the reason we're here. They are why we are on this satyagraha."

Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, who helped the workers to organize, said foremen, supervisors, company officials and security officials routinely subject workers to, at best, abuse, and at worse, to human trafficking and forced labor.

"One of the reasons we're going to Congress is to tell them the guest worker program has turned into nothing more but a legally sanctioned labor trafficking program," Soni said. "Across the Gulf Coast hundreds of men like these are being held in conditions that anywhere else would be called forced labor."

A Health Plan That Covers Everyone and Saves Money

ST. PAUL - Two years ago, Massachusetts made national headlines for passing "universal health care" legislation. In reality, they did no such thing. Even proponents of the Massachusetts plan admit it will not cover everyone. They are hoping only that 95% of the people will eventually have some form of insurance. And their legislation does not help families who have insurance but still cannot get needed medical care.

In Minnesota and around the country, politicians talk about health care for everyone. But the reform proposals most of them work on fall far short of their promise.

The health care crisis is getting worse. Minnesota's record is better than most states, but out of 5 million Minnesotans, about 400,000 do not have any health insurance, and over a million more are people with insurance who still cannot afford to pay their medical bills due to co-payments, deductibles, and treatment not covered by their insurance.

About a third of the population puts off needed medical care because of difficulty paying the bills. There are serious consequences, often deadly ones, when people don't get the care they need. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that the lack of health coverage results in about 18,000 deaths per year in the U.S. That's six times as many people as died in the September 11th attacks.

After watching governors and legislators study the health care problem year after year, and seeing only patches applied to our broken system, I believe it is time for Minnesota to make a bold commitment to fix the problem.

We are long overdue for real health care reform. Before mapping out a reform strategy it is important to set the direction where we are headed. We want to make sure every Minnesotan gets health care. We want to make sure they get the care they need, including things like dental care. And we want to improve public health so people don't need as much medical care.

Along with over 50 other legislators, I have authored legislation to reach those goals.

Our proposal would create the MN Health Plan, a single, statewide plan that would cover all Minnesotans for all their medical needs. Equally important, it would reduce the need for costly medical care through prevention and early intervention, education, and public health programs.

Under the plan, patients would be able to see the doctor of their choice, and their coverage would not end when they lose their job or switch to a new employer. Dental care, prescription drugs, optometry, mental health services, chemical dependency treatment, medical equipment and supplies would all be covered.

Consumers would stay with the same doctors and medical professionals, the same hospitals and clinics, with all payments being made by the MN Health Plan (MHP). There would be no complex application forms, no worrying about pre-existing conditions disqualifying anyone, no worrying about whether the needed treatment was covered, and no problem of patients going without their prescriptions.

The MN Health Plan would be prohibited from reducing the quality of care, or restricting, delaying, or denying it to save money. Instead it would lower health spending through prevention, efficiency and the elimination of unnecessary paperwork. The MHP would return medical decision-making to the doctor and patient, removing health insurance companies from determining treatment.

Everyone would pay for the plan, based on their ability to pay. Their premiums would cover all health care costs, replacing current premiums, as well as co-payments, deductibles, payments for care not currently covered, and the costs of existing government health care programs.

Covering everyone will cost less, not more. This may seem counterintuitive, but it makes sense when you recognize that people without insurance eventually get care in emergency rooms or hospitals with costly treatments that are ultimately paid by everyone else. With all of the cost-shifting and disputes about who is responsible for which costs, about 30 cents of each health care dollar is spent on administration.

The MN Health Plan would save money in five major ways, by:

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AFL-CIO Takes Bush to International Labor Organization

Saying the Bush adminstration's National Labor Relations Board "has turned its back on workers precisely at the moment it should be invigorating the protections" of U.S. labor law, the AFL-CIO filed a massive complaint against the Bush board with the International Labour Organization on Oct. 25. Due to the actions of the Bush-named GOP majority on the 5-person board, "The National Labor Relations Act"--the nation's basic labor law--"has now become a regulatory regimen that enshrines the so-called rights of employers to oppose the efforts of their employees to engage in freedom of association," the federation states.

"Under Bush, America's labor board has so failed our nation's workers that we must now turn to the world's international watchdogs to monitor and intervene," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "The Bush board is kryptonite for America's workers. There is no historic precedent for such aggressive efforts by the board to curtail workers' rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining."

The complaint went to the Brussels-based international group for investigation and the agency typically asks the accused government to respond. But there is no time frame for the probe and ILO has no enforcement powers against the Bush administration or its NLRB if it finds wrongdoing that violates international labor conventions.

In its complaint, the AFL-CIO paints a damning picture of the concerted effort by the Bush board majority to weaken and deny workers' rights, refuse labor law coverage to large groups of workers and generally curb the freedom of association. It cites a pattern in 61 NLRB rulings since Bush took office.

That includes the right to organize and the right to strike, according to ILO conventions, the AFL-CIO said. And though the U.S. has never formally ratified those pacts, as an ILO member, the U.S. is supposed to obey their guidelines, the fed said.

The NLRB pattern the AFL-CIO cited has five facets:

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