Americans need the Employee Free Choice Act to pass, in order to gain a real voice at work.

I have been involved in several union organizing drives and know firsthand what happens when employees wish to form a union. Volunteer organizers go to workers’ homes and ask if they want more information about the process and only stay if invited to do so. I have never witnessed anyone harassed by a union organizer should that person decline to talk.

Organizers have no personal stake in the outcome, no financial gain. We just want more workers to have an opportunity to the rights of union membership. We also realize that unionized workers are better informed on labor issues – that is a benefit to everyone.

Our local union in Rumford recently tried to organize a satellite wood operation in South Paris. The employer hired a lawyer from Portland who muddled the process, delayed bargaining and dragged his feet every way he could. We did win the election, but lost the union there, as the contract process was dragged out for more than a year.

Several workers were fired and others were intimidated. By the time we were done, union supporters were gone due to the company’s interference. There is no union there now. Wages are low, safety is dismal and working conditions horrid. They needed a union to represent them. The system failed them, as it has in other locations I have been involved with, such as a hospital in Berlin, N.H., Decoster Egg Farms in Turner and another mill in Virginia.

Union organizers cannot enter the work site. The company owns it and holds its employees as a captive audience. Once the company knows an organizing drive is underway, the repercussions begin. First, they will hire a consulting company that specializes in winning the election. They do this with mandatory meetings with small groups of workers at a time. Then the company can threaten and coerce workers, or may promise them rewards if the drive is called off.

I’ve seen raises suddenly awarded during the drive as the company tries to buy its way out. They commonly fire leaders who speak for the union. It is illegal, but the process to win the fired person’s job back is rarely completed before the election is over. In the meantime, fear is struck among the workforce.

My international union uses the criteria that at least 70 percent of cards must be signed by pro-union workers before we would even consider trying to organize. Even with this high standard, by the time the election occurs, we rarely win. Several terminations, many threats, key sudden promotions to salaried positions, strange layoffs and a few circumstantial wage or benefit increases swing the vote against the union. Or a manager may admit that “they have made mistakes in the past and promise to do better and listen to their valuable workers in the future.”

A union does not simply burst into a workplace. Typically, we are invited due to poor working conditions, favoritism, safety concerns, low wages or substandard benefits. Fear and intimidation by employers are why we lose. “Just vote in a free election” is what employers and their lobbyists say.

If it were truly an election free from coercion, that would be fine.

Once most employees work for a union, they rarely choose to vote one out, or quit and work non-union. They find by joining a union and paying relatively small dues (a few cents per-hour) is not costly. Rather, it pays huge dividends. Union jobs typically pay more, have better benefits and have work rules that help eliminate favoritism and harassment.

Nonunion workers are “at will employees.” They can be terminated at any time, as long as an employer does not discriminate against them. One of the great benefits to union membership is the common “just cause” article. This means a worker cannot be fired, unless they did something very wrong, such as theft or fighting at work. Back pay and return-to-work can be awarded to a worker who was fired unjustly.

When a worker does well and earns more than a new employee would, or speaks for themselves or others on the job, or becomes eligible for a new promised benefit such as a pension after 10 years of work, a non-union company may terminate them for “no good” reason.

The present system is broken. Workers need the right to organize themselves into a unionized workforce that they would then run for themselves. They need the Employee Free Choice Act to be signed into law.

Ron Hemingway, a veteran union organizer, is recording Secretary for Local 900, United Steelworkers Union in Rumford and vice president of the Maine Labor Council. He lives in Dixfield.


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