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Photo credit: Mark Renard

(Jordan Barab has accepted a position with the House Education and Labor Committee. We are thrilled that Tula has agreed to continue this weekly labor column for FDL – the workforce and the folks who do the labor in this country are the backbone of our economy, and we at FDL are committed to keeping the issues they face front and center in political discussions.  This column is one of the ways that we try to do that, and although we will miss Jordan's amazing voice, adding Tula is a plus in anyone's book.  Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), Tula now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor at http://blogg.aflcio.org/.  Welcome, Tula! — CHS)

When The Donald spews forth his bombastic, signature Trump phrase, “You’re fired,” we don’t feel too bad for the would-be apprentice at the other end of his pointed finger because that person likely will return to a six-figure real estate job or corporate marketing position.

But such happy endings are not what occur in the Reality Show we call the workplace—especially for those who try to join a union.

In Illinois, eight workers at the Resurrection Health Care chain know that when they got fired, no cushy fall-back job was there to catch them.

And the workers say they weren’t fired because they did not do their jobs—they say they were fired for trying to form a union, which is illegal under labor law—even if the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) did not agree with them and ruled otherwise. In fact, research by Cornell University Prof. Kate Bronfenbrenner has established that when confronted with an organizing campaign, some 25 percent of private-sector employers fire one or more employees

Freedom of association—joining a union—is part of the Bill of Rights.

But right now, those rights aren’t being enforced. Our current labor laws are broken, allowing corporations to intimidate workers when they try to form a union. It’s the 21st century, not the Gilded Age—shouldn’t employees have the freedom to make their own choice without interference from management?

Shirley Brown, a 10-year housekeeper at the Westlake Hospital in Chicago also is among the 10,000 workers at the RHC facilities who, for four years, have been fighting to win a voice at work with AFSCME Council 31 in the face of intense management opposition. Last summer, Brown spoke at a rally in Chicago held in support of the workers’ efforts to form a union.

And while our CEO Joseph Toomey gets paid millions of dollars, housekeepers start off at $8 per hour. If we want our families covered on health insurance, we pay nearly $200 a month.

I have co-workers that have taken their children off of their insurance and put them on Medicaid because they can’t afford it. Imagine that…full-time employees of a Catholic hospital whose children don’t have health insurance.

If Brown and her co-workers had a union, they’d get better pay—and probably even have health care for their children. Union workers earn 30 percent more than nonunion workers. Full-time wage and salary workers who were union members made $833 in 2005, compared with $642 for their nonunion counterparts. And union workers are far more likely to have health insurance than nonunion workers.

But after Brown and the nurses, laundry workers, therapists and others throughout the Resurrection chain began to form their union, the hospital hired an anti-union consultant to implement a campaign of misinformation and scare tactics. Brown says she has been required by management to attend meetings against the union where union supporters were not allowed to speak.

Many of Brown’s co-workers are afraid to talk about the union—even outside of work—for fear of losing their jobs. Despite the poisonous atmosphere created by the hospital, Brown continues to organize with the support of many community, religious and elected leaders, including Sens. Barack Obama and Dick Durbin and Rep. Jan Schakowsky. Catholic theologians and scholars also have come out in support of the workers’ freedom to form a union without management interference.

The problem isn’t just Resurrection. And it’s not just the health care industry or service sector. Our labor laws, first created in the 1930s, are broken. Outdated—and badly abused by employers.

Last week, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics released the annual figures for union membership. The number of union members decreased from 12.5 percent of the total U.S workforce in 2005 to 12 percent now. Part of that decline is the fault of those of us in the union movement—we’re not being as aggressive as we can be in reaching out to workers to help them form unions. But a really big part is because workers who want to join unions can’t.

A recent poll shows the percentage of workers who say they would vote for a union is rising: 60 million workers would join a union if they could. But wait…isn’t union membership declining?

Something’s wrong with that picture—and it’s the ability of corporations to get away with harassing and intimidating workers to the point that workers fear losing their jobs and are afraid to form unions.

In 2005, a group of Nobel Peace Laureates, including the Rev. Desmond Tutu, former Polish President and Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa, former President Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama, issued a joint statement calling every nation, including the United States, to “truly protect and defend workers’ rights, including the right to form unions and bargain collectively.” In their statement, the Nobel Laureates lambasted this nation’s refusal to ensure the basic Freedom of Assembly guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, writing:

Even the wealthiest nation in the world—the United States of America—fails to adequately protect workers’ rights to form unions and bargain collectively. Millions of U.S. workers lack any legal protection to form unions and thousands are discriminated against every year for trying to exercise these rights.

It shouldn’t take four years—and longer, in many cases—for America’s workers who want to form a union to do so. But because workers are forced to go through a so-called NLRB election process, employers have lots of time to scare off enough workers so a vote in the management-controlled process can never be taken. 

A few years ago, we in the AFL-CIO union movement pushed for a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act that would level the playing field for workers and employers and help rebuild America’s middle class and restore the freedom of workers such as Brown to choose a union.

In the 109th Congress, the Employee Free Choice Act drew 215 co-sponsors in the House and 44 in the Senate. This year, with a far-more worker-friendly group in Congress, we know the bill will be introduced, at least in the House.

And when it is, we will have an e-mail campaign up and running so everyone who supports workers’ freedom to make their own decisions can ask their members of Congress to vote for the bill—before the greed-is-good Trump wannabees get a chance to tell another worker: “You’re fired.”