We in the union movement often are asked: Why do workers in 21st century high-tech America need unions?

This month, the AFL-CIO community affiliate provides one real good answer to that question: bad bosses.

In its second annual My Bad Boss Contest, Working America is looking for the worst of the worst workplace horror stories about managers who mismanage and maltreat employees and otherwise act like they are the proprietors of their own personal medieval serf estates. The winning entry—voted on by visitors to the Bad Boss site—will get a weeklong getaway, miles away from the boss.

Every week, Working America, the 1.6 million-member community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, will announce semi-finalists, and visitors to the My Bad Boss Contest will vote for the bad boss story that strikes the most horror in our hearts.

The competition is stiff. Last week’s winning semi-finalists included a waitress whose boss hired her stalker.

Yep. That’s right. A woman reports that when she worked as a waitress, “at a well-known
national chain,” 

…a very creepy male customer began coming in on a daily basis, demanding that I wait on him, and then harassing me with constant and unwelcome advances. What began with love letters scrawled on the back of place-mats quickly escalated into disturbing threats and incessant stalking.

Remarkably, my boss’s response was to laugh about it. He seemed to delight in the scenario, and even began referring to the stalker as my “boyfriend.” Instead of asking the stalker to leave, my boss forced me to continue waiting on him.

When I worked nights, the stalker waited out the parking lot, watching me while I worked. Even my co-workers were uncomfortable. The restaurant had picture windows on all sides—anytime you looked up you’d see his eerie silhouette under the lights in the parking lot. I had to ask a male friend to start picking me up after work.

Then the unthinkable happened. The stalker applied for a job busing tables and my boss—knowing that this man was stalking me on a nightly basis—actually hired him! When I showed up for my shift and saw him in uniform I nearly fainted.

That same week, a co-worker discovered a gun and hand-cuffs amongst his things in the men’s changing area. Rather than fire this guy and call the police, my boss accused my co-worker of invading the stalker’s privacy and did nothing!

Needless to say, I quit. To this day I shudder to think what could’ve happened.

So why did she work at the chain as long as she did? The woman, who identifies herself as “Stalked in Maine,” provides the answer:

I was struggling to support myself and needed the job.

Her experience took place 13 years ago, and the economic situation wage workers face in today’s America is far worse. Michael Moore’s documentary “SICKO” shows a woman who tells George W. Bush that she’s working three jobs. Bush proffers his standard idiotic grin and says something to the effect: “Isn’t that great?”

No, actually. It isn’t.

Needing to work three jobs isn’t a sign that the economy is thriving because jobs are plentiful (Bush’s interpretation). It’s a sign that new jobs being created do not offer sufficient wages, health care and retirement coverage to support an individual or a family.

There is a tie between BAD bosses and an economy that works against working people. Because when people are so desperate for a job that they literally will risk their lives to keep it, there’s something big time wrong with the system.

It used to be, you worked hard, you had a chance to get ahead—or at least, pay the bills. But since 1973, there’s been a big disconnect between worker productivity and wages. From 1979 to 2004, the percentage of households in the “middle class” category—those with incomes between $30,000 and $90,000—fell from 47 percent to 39 percent. As fewer workers have access to affordable health care, retirement security, education and training, and as CEOs pay themselves more and more and their employees less and less, the middle class is sinking.

And as the middle class tanks, bad bosses can get away with actions such as this one described on the My Bad Boss Contest site by a worker in a Rocky Mountain state:

My father passed away unexpectedly due to complications resulting from pneumonia. When I advised my boss that I would need Saturday off to attend the funeral, his compassionate response was that no one could cover for me. (I had not missed a day of work in 4-1/2 years for any reason.) He refused to give time off, and I missed the funeral. I did get bereavement time…a week later.

And after cheerleading the rush to war, some corporate honchos return the favor to veterans who risked their lives by figuratively spitting on them, as one disabled veteran recounted:

I requested one of the handicap parking spaces assigned to the agency I work for because my below-the-knee prosthesis does not like it when I have to walk back and forth from the parking garage where I currently park. The first thing the agency director asked for was a doctor’s statement proving I have a permanent disability. Hello, I have a below the knee amputation. When that request was satisfied, my request was denied because I can walk short distances, can drive, and can use public transportation.

When my Union representative pointed out that the current occupants of the handicap parking spaces are not physically disabled, can walk “long” distances, can drive, and use public transportation more conveniently than I, the agency director continued to deny my request because it is a known fact that all agency parking spaces have been given to able-bodied supervisors as a perk. We are taking this issue to Arbitration and hopefully justice will prevail not only for me, but for other disabled veterans and employees who work where I currently work.

Fortunately, this veteran has a union and so has a lot better chance of achieving a sane solution. But for the thousands of other descriptions of employee harassment on Working America’s Bad Boss site, the situation is much more grim.

For instance, the man in who was held up at gunpoint at work and whose manager’s only concern was how much money was taken. Or the dental hygienist whose boss required her to see double the number of patients, and who developed such severe wrist disabilities as a result she no longer can work. And the woman whose politically reactionary employer called her doctor to find out what type of surgery she was undergoing with her OB/GYN.

Working America’s My Bad Boss Contest gives us a chance to gasp in outrage. And as an organization dedicated to helping workers get a voice through on- and offline outreach and political mobilization, Working America also gives us a chance for change.