Op-Ed In the Rutland Herald and Times Argus newspapers, December 2002

By James Haslam

When workers organize to collectively bargain fair wages, benefits, and safe working conditions they are exercising a basic and important human right. They are struggling for dignity and justice at work, but also in the local community.

“Working conditions are living conditions. Healthy and safe workplaces that compensate fairly, raise the standard of living in our communities,” says Dan Brush, President of GCIU 745c, the union at Capital City Press in Barre. “The effects of poverty, such as crime, domestic violence, and untreated illness, are devastating to a healthy community. I strongly believe that unions make communities better places to live.”

The connections between people organizing unions and the benefits to greater society are endless. Unions struggled for many benefits we now take for granted, such as the eight-hour-day, the minimum wage, social security, the end of child labor and the public school system. In Vermont, we have some more recent examples.

In August of 2000, over a hundred nursing home workers organized a union at Berlin Health & Rehabilitation Center (BH&RC) for livable wages and working conditions, but also for the ability to provide proper care. In doing so they created a public debate about proper staffing, and shed light on industry-wide problems. So the state agencies investigated, and because of those members, regulatory steps have begun to assure proper staffing in Vermont’s nursing homes. Quality care also united over a thousand Registered Nurses at Fletcher Allen Health Care (FAHC) to form a union in October. We’re all better off now that nurses have a voice with management.

But organizing isn’t easy. The laws, which supposedly protect our right to organize, are weak and poorly enforced. Employers harass, misinform and intimidate to create confusion to scare their employees from organizing. It’s a $300-million a year industry consulting corporations to use these coercive tactics. Some of the biggest national union-busting firms have been involved in local organizing campaigns. BH&RC hired Jackson & Lewis out of Connecticut (who are holding a seminar on “How to Stay Union-free” for healthcare employers throughout Vermont and New Hampshire on December 12th in White River Junction at Hotel Coolidge where dozens of community members plan to protest this activity in our community). FAHC hired Adams, Haskell, Nash & Sheridan from Kentucky. Both corporations waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on these union-busters whose sole job to thwart workers from organizing. To succeed despite these obstacles, workers need support from the community.

“The community support we got made a tremendous difference,” says Jennifer Henry, RN at Fletcher Allen. “Knowing so many people were behind us went a long way saying what we were doing was right and we could win.” [On October 3 & 4, the RN’s voted almost 2-to-1 to form a union despite the expensive campaign waged against them.]

Unionized workers bargain for the whole job market. For instance, the wage increases and benefits the Burlington nurses negotiate will positively affect other healthcare workers throughout Vermont. With their ability to negotiate, manufacturing unions raise the bar for the rest in the industry. And don’t believe the myth that by forming a union and bargaining forces corporations to relocate out of Vermont. That’s just a fear tactic from employers who want to retain the power to dictate everything. Statistically, non-union plants move more often than union plants.

“We are the absolute last people who want to see our plant move,” says Bob South, President of UE Local 234, the union at Fairbanks Scales in St. Johnsbury. “If the company is hurting financially, we invite them to open the books so we can be part of the discussion of how to keep things running, and still get treated fairly. We pray that they stay, but if they leave, we’re better off having a union to negotiate the terms of a severance package.”

In our system, unions are the best way to fight for economic justice and safe working conditions. And as wealth disparity continues to grow, it becomes harder to find good jobs in Vermont and more difficult to support families. We have to fight back as a community.

Recently the religious community has gotten involved in labor struggles, many issuing teachings on the topic like the following from the Roman Catholic Church:

“The Church fully supports the rights of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions. This is a specific application of the more general right to associate…No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself. Therefore, we firmly oppose organized efforts, such as those regrettably seen in this country, to break existing unions or prevent workers from organizing.”

The community makes a difference. Just because laws that protect workers are inadequate, it doesn’t mean we have to tolerate intimidating corporate behavior. If neighbors, friends and congregations stand together with workers we can make union-busting campaigns unacceptable. We can hold corporations accountable to the values we hold dear – democracy, freedom and equality. Labor struggles are community struggles and we all need to get involved.

James Haslam is the director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, a community organization committed to fighting for workers’ rights. With questions or comments contact 802-229-0009 or info [at] workerscenter [dot] org