Until 1998 Sherri Bufkin happily worked as a manager for Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel, N.C. But in 1997, when workers in the giant meatpacking plant there began to organize a union, her superiors - she has testified - forced her to join their campaign to "do whatever was necessary to keep [the union] out."
Bufkin also said she had to tell workers that they would suffer violence and lose jobs if they formed a union, and that she had to discriminate in assignments against pro-union workers. Worse yet, her bosses insisted that she fire some workers simply because they openly supported a union. Then they demanded that she sign false affidavits about management's tactics - many of which clearly violated laws protecting workers' right to organize.
Shortly after she refused to lie for the company at a National Labor Relations Board hearing, Smithfield fired her, plunging her into prolonged unemployment and bankruptcy. "I don't regret standing up for the truth," she told a June 20 Senate committee hearing on obstacles to forming unions, "because now I can look my daughter square in the eye."
Senators also heard from workers - like nurse Nancy Schweikhard, ship captain Eric J. Vizier and hotel worker Mario Vidales - who told of being the direct victims of management harassment, threats to close their workplaces, a beating by anti-union thugs, and arrests or surveillance by police cooperating with anti-union employers.
But few other Americans heard these stories, because the hearing went nearly unreported. That's a shame. At a time when the country is preoccupied with terrorism from abroad and Enron-style corporate abuses at home, it is important to remember that millions of American workers who would like to have a voice on the job have been denied their internationally recognized human rights by corporations who "in too many cases act like real domestic terrorists," in the words of AFL-CIO organizer Stewart Acuff.
According to Senate testimony from Kenneth Roth, whose Human Rights Watch group two years ago documented "widespread labor rights violations" in the United States, in the 1950s a few hundred workers a year were fired - illegally - for trying to organize unions. But in 1998 - despite a much lower level of union organizing activity - 24,000 workers lost their jobs just because they were trying to exercise their internationally guaranteed freedom to associate with other workers on the job.
Now, less than 14 percent of the U.S. workforce belong to unions, but surveys suggest that 44 percent wish they did. Employer threats, firings and systematic intimidation stifle many bids to unionize. In 92 percent of all organizing efforts, employers force workers to attend anti-union meetings. In half of all campaigns - and more than 70 percent of organizing at manufacturing businesses - employers threaten to close the business and, often, to move overseas, if workers unionize.
This month, workers at Quadrtech, a small manufacturing plant in Southern California, reached a financial settlement with management that also marked the end of their attempt to unionize. Nearly two years ago, a federal court issued an injunction to stop the owner from moving to Mexico in order to avoid unionization. But the company reportedly kept trying to move.
Even when workers overcome employer obstacles and vote - or otherwise show support - for a union, managers often refuse to negotiate a contract. For example, much-abused farm workers have voted in 428 elections for the United Farm Workers since 1975, but growers have only signed 185 contracts (although a bill awaiting California Gov. Gray Davis's signature would require binding arbitration in deadlocked negotiations). Employers suffer minuscule penalties that don't deter lawbreaking.
Early this month, the AFL-CIO launched a new campaign to protect worker rights at work, especially the right to join unions without interference from employers. A stronger worker voice would increase economic security and equality, restrain abuse of corporate power, and enhance democracy.
As Kenneth Roth told the senators, "if the rights of workers are not respected and protected, then the strength of American democracy and freedom is diminished."
Democracy and freedom need protection from physical threats of terrorists - and from overzealous antiterrorists, like the Bush administration, which wants to deny workers in a new Department of Homeland Security both civil service protections and the right to organize into unions.
But democracy and freedom also must be safeguarded against the corporate economic terrorism that hurts us all, not just working people directly denied their rights to join together in a union.
David Moberg is a senior editor at the newsmagazine In These Times.
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.