Minority Unions and Section 7
by Judy Atkins, Past President, United
Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), District 2 and
David Cohen, International Representative, United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE)
On Labor Day 2004 there will be Union parades in many cities, in others there will be Labor Day breakfasts. Most of the speeches will denounce the Bush administration as anti-labor and decry the obstacles that the NLRB places in the way of unions that are attempting to organize new members. Conveniently forgotten will be the fact that the Democratic Party over the last 30 years has done nothing to reform labor laws, and by supporting NAFTA gave employers a big stick to use to hold over the heads of unorganized labor.
On this Labor Day the labor movement and all progressive people need to take a different course. We need to begin to build unions in all workplaces, and not wait for NLRB approval of “majority status”, but instead build fighting, democratic, member run organizations with however many workers can be signed up. This can be done. The laws are already in place. All we need is the willpower to do it. Union workers can help do it without waiting for approval from officials above. Peace activists can do it, anti-racist activists can do it, and community activists can do it.
What are we talking about?
We are in a period not too different from the 1920’s. Unions represent a small percentage of the workforce and are under constant attack from business and the government. In the 1920’s workers organized fledgling unions under the banner of the Trade Union Educational League. Union militants were sought out wherever they could be found and they became the core of a militant union movement. These TUEL committees became the foundation for the CIO upsurge in the 1930’s.
We believe that there is a need to build committees of workers in “non-union” workplaces all over the United States. These committees can be democratic fighting organizations that will educate other workers on the need for unions while engaging them in struggle to improve their lives. (For a longer examination of this idea see the article, “A Proposal for a 21st Century Trade Union Educational League, an attempt to solve the crisis of organizing the unorganized” Working USA, Winter 2004. It can also be found at:
Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act states;
“Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, to join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purposes of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all of such activities except to the extent that such right may be affected by an agreement requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment as authorized in section 8 (a) (3)”
Thus Section 7 is the legal basis for workers taking concerted action against their employer. “Concerted action,” means action taken by more then one worker on behalf of themselves or other workers. It is the basis for workers wearing stickers, signing grievances, petitions, striking or walking off the job (under certain conditions), in short, for workers doing things to make the boss know they are upset and want changes.
The important concept for us is that Section 7 does not mandate that a union have majority status, or that there even be an official union. Workers who come together for “mutual aid or protection” is sufficient enough reason to place workers under the protection of Section 7. The one kicker is that the employer must know about the action and the reason behind the action for workers to come under Section 7 protection. The courts and the NLRB have through the years put many restrictions on the use of Section 7, but it remains a vehicle for struggle.
What Else Could Workers Use In Their Fight?
Laws in most states provide some protection for workers. It is surprising how many of these basic laws are violated by employers. Modern TUEL committees can become versed in these rights and fight to have them enacted. The benefit of this type of action is that often times victory is assured. The key is to not have just the TUEL committee involved in taking action, or for them to become jail house lawyers, but to have many workers involved, with the TUEL committee providing some leadership based upon knowledge.
Here are some of the State and Federal laws that can be used;
!Health and Safety issues either via OSHA or State
health and safety boards
!Laws regulating holidays
!use of surveillance cameras
!use of lie detector tests
!drug testing either under the Department of Transportation or State laws
!State laws on payroll issues, such as when checks must be issued or garnishing of paychecks
!EEOC rulings on discrimination based upon race, sex and age
!Regulations on 401K deposits
!health insurance coverage
!minimum wage laws
!Maternity coverage and leave from work
!Family Medical Leave Act
!Laws covering break times, clean bathrooms,
!The Americans with Disabilities Act
!The right of employees to access their own personal records
In some states there may be enterprising pro-labor lawyers that put out guides to workers compensation laws, or pro-worker laws in general. If not it will be up to unions or other groups to compile this information in a coherent manner so that TUEL committees can be trained to use these laws in their fights. In addition, existing Worker’s Rights Boards, usually affiliated with Jobs with Justice chapters, could be enlisted in these fights.
The other avenue of struggle is in using the employer’s own handbook, their own rules and regulations as a basis for struggle. Most of these handbooks contain disclaimers that this is not a contract and can be changed at any time by the employer. Leading fights against some of these rules or for the equal enforcement of the rules often times exposes the unjust character of the handbooks and sets an example as to why a union contract that is binding is necessary.
The idea of workers using Section 7 rights is not new. Neither is the concept of “minority unions” new. What we have to do is adapt these ideas to today’s conditions. These 21st Century TUEL committees can become the basis for an upsurge in the labor movement, one that is committed to rank and file democratic unionism.
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