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In his 35 years at Blue Diamond Growers in Sacramento, Calif., Ivo Camilo has worked hard, packing boxes with almonds and hauling them around the warehouse. But the physical hardships that grew more difficult on his aging body were a lot easier to endure than the brutal disrespect he got from his employer in April 2005.

That month, Camilo was hurt on the job and summarily fired. According to Camilo:

Two supervisors escorted me out like a criminal. By firing me, a 35-year employee, they sent a message to everyone else.

That message? Don’t ever try to join a union.

A month before he was fired, Camilo and some of his co-workers had gone public with their efforts to join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). On April 15, 2005, the workers gave management a letter with the names of members of the organizing committee. According to Camilo:

We told them we knew our rights and expected them to be respected. We’re fed up with watching us fall further and further behind. We had no raise in seven years and we are all at will employees with no protections.

Three days later, Camilo scratched his hand on a machine and Blue Diamond fired him, claiming he had contaminated the almonds with blood. 

Recounting his experience during last week’s House subcommittee hearings on the Employee Free Choice Act, Camilo broke down as he described devoting 35 years to his employer, only to have Blue Diamond treat him as if he were a disposable, inanimate machine part.

A year after he was fired, a judge ordered the company to re-hire Camilo and one of his co-workers. Firing a worker for speaking out in favor of a union is illegal, even in this anti-worker Bush administration era. But Blue Diamond’s virulent campaign included more than 30 anti-union meetings where the company threatened that workers’ pensions would be eliminated and also threatened a plant closing. When the company thought it had thoroughly intimidated workers, management asked for an immediate union election. 

As Camilo puts it: Who would have had a free choice after that?

Camilo’s moving narrative was one among several great testimonies at a hearing Thursday held by the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions. In addition to Camilo, the subcommittee heard from other workers seeking to form unions, as well as an AFL-CIO legal staff member and other experts who support the Employee Free Choice Act. (I won’t go over the details of the act now because I’ve highlighted it in previous posts here and here.) 

At a House Education and Labor Committee hearing the day before the subcommittee met, committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) discussed how every working person deserves a free and uncoerced choice in deciding whether to join a union. After all, Miller said, if a majority of employees in a bargaining unit wish to join a union, there is no reason they should be hampered in doing so.

Miller also took a pre-emptive shot at opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act who are fixated on the issue of so-called secret ballot elections for union representation. Under the current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process—the same process Camilo and his co-workers went through—“elections” too often are management-controlled. The Employee Free Choice Act would make it possible for workers seeking to join a union to do so by signing cards through a majority verification process—one in which employers would not have the opportunity, as did Blue Diamond, to harass and intimidate workers.

As Miller said, the record will show the “secret” election process has but a long and negative history of coercion under the status quo—one which perpetuates an extremely coercive environment.

Among the witnesses at the hearings was Gordon Lafer, a professor at the University of Oregon, who has studied how the NLRB union representation election process really works. Lafer also gave a briefing to Hill staffers in which he said the so-called NLRB election process resembles what happens in rogue regimes abroad rather than anything we call American.

Even though the process ends in a secret ballot, it is not fair, Lafer said. He compared what happens in union representation elections to the standards the United States sets for what is “free and fair” in foreign elections and says “every aspect of the NLRB process violates U.S. standards of free and fair.” In a report for American Rights at Work, Lafer compares U.S. standards for foreign and domestic elections with the union representation election—get the list here.

In fact, employer interference in the management-controlled election process by which workers currently are forced to form unions is off the charts. Every 23 minutes a person is fired or discriminated against for supporting a union.

Mary Beth Maxwell, executive director of American Rights at Work, which sponsored the briefing on the bill, says employer lawlessness “is rampant in the workplace.”

The system is broken and manipulated by employers and there are no meaningful penalties for breaking the law.

As Lafer notes, management is free to express its views on the union at any time, supervisors are urged to hold one-on-one meetings with employees making their pro-management views know, but, at the same time, pro-union supporters are banned from discussing the union or posting pro-union literature anywhere in the workplace. Even worse, he describes how employers can force employees to attend mass meetings—the type of meetings Blue Diamond held—where pro-union employees are told that if they speak they can be fired on the spot. 

And if that’s not clear enough, Lafer also made the following analogy:

If during the 2004 election, the Bush administration could have forced every voter in America to watch the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth movie, with no opportunity for response from the other side—or if the Democrats could have forced everyone to watch Farenheit 9/11—they might well have seized the opportunity—but no one would have called it democracy.

We have 233 House co-sponsors of the Employee Free Choice Act now and are working hard to get Senate co-sponsors as well. In the meantime, please urge your representative to support the Employee Free Choice Act. Send an e-mail here. Get a list of House co-sponsors here.