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Koeppel writes: "To join a union or not to join, the question is hot."

A rally on Friday in support of the Amazon workers outside the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union's building in Birmingham, Ala. (photo: Charity Rachelle/NYT)
A rally on Friday in support of the Amazon workers outside the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union's building in Birmingham, Ala. (photo: Charity Rachelle/NYT)

Should I Join the Union?

By Barbara Koeppel, Reader Supported News

29 March 21

To join a union or not to join, the question is hot.

bevy of Democrats — most notably Senator Bernie Sanders — traveled to Bessemer, Alabama, to boost the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s (RWDSU) battle to organize the Amazon warehouse. President Joe Biden weighed in: “Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.” Even Florida senator Marco Rubio said he supports “those at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse” — though most Republicans, such as Alabama senator Tommy Tuberville, are tenaciously opposed.

Amazon and the RWDSU are locked in combat that will end when the workers’ vote is tallied on Monday, March 29. The fight is particularly fraught, since Amazon is owned by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, who has made $58 billion since the pandemic began a year ago. Many wonder why he is so hostile to sharing even a fraction of the wealth.

In fact, the stakes are huge and extend far beyond Bessemer — because Amazon’s only unionized warehouses are in France, Italy, Spain and Germany; in the U.S., the company’s 110 facilities are union-free. If the RWDSU wins in fiercely anti-union, right-to-work Alabama, who knows what’s next?

Thus, Amazon has plastered anti-union signs throughout the Bessemer warehouse — even in bathrooms — and holds daily meetings that workers must attend. Here, company managers warn workers that if they join, they’ll lose their current $15.30 an hour wage and various benefits. Worse, they’ll need to pay union dues. For low-wage workers, these are frightening possibilities.

But neither is true. Historically, new union contracts get at least the current wage and benefits package; also, workers aren’t legally required to pay dues in right-to-work states (Alabama is one of 28).

Since the 1980s, companies have beaten back organizing drives across the U.S., threatening to close if unions win (in fact, they often do, regardless of the outcome, seeking lower-paid workers abroad). At Harvest Select, a catfish de-boning plant in Selma, Alabama, workers earn about $8.50 an hour. When the RWDSU tried to organize the plant, the owners frightened their workers so successfully — insisting they’d shut the plant if the union won — that the RWDSU couldn’t even get one-third of the employees to sign the cards needed to hold elections.

Indeed, union battles have been waged and lost for decades. The United Auto Workers (UAW) tried to unionize a Nissan plant in Mississippi, a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, a Toyota plant in Kentucky, and a Mercedes Benz plant in Alabama. The United Electrical Workers (UE) tried to organize Westinghouse and General Electric factories in Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina. All failed.

So the question is, why should the Amazon workers join? Successes are few, but the answers are compelling, and some examples are useful.

This past fall, the National Nurses United (NNU) won its organizing drive at the for-profit Health Care of America hospital in Asheville, North Carolina; HCA is the biggest private hospital chain in the U.S., with 150 hospitals nation-wide. Earlier, NNU also won at 17 HCA hospitals in Florida and Texas.

Bradley Van Waus, NNU’s southern region director, says a key issue for the nurses — as with workers everywhere — is job security. In the past, if nurses complained about work-place problems, they could be disciplined or fired. With the union contract, this can’t happen.

Further, they can now weigh in on the crucial question of nurse-to-patient ratios, which directly affects patients’ health. Van Waus says “in some HCA hospitals, nurses were required to care for seven or even nine patients. The biggest problem was on intensive care units, where they might even have been responsible for three or four patients — although the standard is usually one nurse for every two patients. Now, under the union contract, the nurses were able to create committees that HCA must consult if they want to change the ratio.”

The changes go far beyond staffing. For example, wage rates are no longer arbitrary. Before, the hospital developed its pay scales on an ad hoc basis. Now, the hospital must set wages based on nurses’ experience and years worked. Van Waus says this has a far-ranging impact since nearby non-union hospitals must meet HCA’s wages and benefits in order to compete. “When we’re at the bargaining table with the hospital managers, we’re actually representing thousands of non-union nurses,” he says.

The committees also weigh in on issues of technology and equipment. “At the Central Florida Hospital in Sanford, one unit didn’t have an icemaker. So nurses had to go to another unit each time they needed to get ice for their patients’ drinks. The committee met, heard the complaint, and alerted the hospital management, which bought one,” he says.

Further, nurses were often sent to work on hospital units although they hadn’t been trained in that particular specialty. Now they must be trained.

Van Waus says the union has been even more important during the pandemic. At non-union hospitals, when nurses have become ill, they’ve lost wages if they needed more sick leave than the hospital thought necessary. “It’s shocking, but many of them even told nurses to return to work or be fired — even before they tested negative for the virus. But at hospitals with the NNU, nurses have stayed out until they’ve recuperated.”

The nurses’ access to PPE (protective equipment) is also critical. “It’s a matter of life and death. In many hospitals, nurses must use the same mask for an entire day — when these should be thrown out and replaced after they treat each patient. In NNU hospitals, our nurses refused, advocated for more PPE, and got them,” says Van Waus.

Further, nurses at NNU hospitals are better able to handle violence. “Nurses get hit a lot by confused patients or unhappy family members. To correct this, our contract requires that they be trained on how to prevent and safely handle aggressive behavior.”

The UFCW win at Smithfield Foods

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) scored a win at Smithfield’s meatpacking plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, in 2008 — although it took 15 years to make it happen.

Gene Bruskin, who ran the organizing campaign, says “job security was also a critical issue for the meatpackers because the plant is in a rural area where there are few jobs. Although Smithfield’s wages were low, it still paid more than those at a non-union chicken processing plant in Mt. Aire, five miles away. With so many workers available, there was constant turnover and employees were fired for no reason. It happened all the time.”

To help balance Smithfield’s power, the union contract offers a legally binding grievance procedure: if a worker and supervisor have a dispute, the union shop steward represents the employee. If they don’t reach an agreement, the grievance goes to a neutral arbitrator.

In fact, job security cuts across all workplaces. As a New York Times reporter told me, “I’ve always worked in a union shop. This means I can’t be fired without cause. Otherwise, I can be told to take my things and leave, full stop. With the union, this can’t happen.”

The Smithfield contract also guarantees benefits — such as vacations, paid sick leave, and health insurance. Before, the number of vacation days was solely management’s decision. Under the contract, the number is specified, based on the years employees have worked. Also, medical benefits have improved. Bruskin says, “This is critical, since employees work on fast-moving assembly lines with very sharp tools — and often get injured. Further, health insurance costs were lowered. Today, a worker with a family of four pays $120 a month for health insurance and Smithfield picks up the difference. In addition, the contract provides a dental plan, which the workers never had.”

The contract also guaranteed that a health and safety committee, composed of union representatives and managers, would be created. A critical task is to check the speed of the assembly line, which Smithfield completely controlled in the past. “Now,” says Bruskin, “when a worker complains that the speed seems to have been increased, the union representatives can go inside the plant and measure it. If it did escalate — which is very dangerous — we get it reduced.”

Barbara Koeppel is a Washington DC-based investigative reporter who covers social, economic, military, political, foreign policy and whistleblower issues.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
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