Dick Meister: Union rights are civil rights


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

The right of U.S. workers to organize and bargain collectively with their employers unhindered by employer or government interference has been a legal right since the 1930s. Yet there are workers who are unaware of that, and employers who aim to keep them unaware, meanwhile doing their utmost to keep them from exercising what is a basic civil right.

Many employers often claim working people are in any case not much interested in unionization, noting that less than 15 percent of workers currently belong to unions.

But as anyone who has looked beneath the employer claims has discovered, it's the illegal opposition of employers and the failure of government regulatory agencies to curtail the opposition that's the basic cause of the low rate of unionization.

If most workers do indeed oppose unionization, then what of the recent polls decisively showing otherwise? And why do so many employers go to the considerable trouble and expense of waging major campaigns against unionization ? Why do they take such illegal actions as firing or otherwise penalizing union supporters?

Could it be that union campaigners might be able to persuade workers to vote for unionization, despite what their employers might have to say? Or despite employer threats to punish them for voting union?

Some employers have now taken the outrageous step of trying to keep employees from even knowing of their legal right to unionization.

Under a National Labor Relations Board ruling last August, employers were to be required as of this April to post notices at their workplaces telling employees of their union rights.

The ruling stemmed from the labor board's finding that young workers, recent immigrants and workers in non-union workplaces were generally unaware of the labor laws' guarantees and protections – including, of course, the basic right of workers to unionize.

As the New York Times observed, "the backlash was furious." The notoriously anti-union National Association of Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed suits in two federal courts, claiming the law does not expressly permit the NLRB to require employers to post such notices. An appeals court has postponed the effective date of the rule pending further appeals.

The Times noted that the case involves more than "the legality of having to hang a poster in the coffee room. It's about industry's attempt to delay rules whenever it cannot derail them outright. It is about preventing workers from gaining knowledge and support to help them press their concerns."

So unless and until a court rules otherwise, workers will have the right to protections from the labor laws, but not the right to be informed of that through workplace notices and otherwise. Bizarre, certainly, is the word for that.

What workers need above all, even above the right to know their legal rights, is a firm strengthening of those rights. Why not add the right of unionization specifically to the Civil Rights Act? It is, after all, on a par with other basic civil rights such as the right to an education free of discrimination.

The Civil Rights Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate against workers on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion or national origin, should be expanded to include a specific prohibition of discrimination against pro-union workers.

No less a civil rights champion than Martin Luther King Jr. would agree to that. He knew that the right to unionization is one of the most important civil rights. Virtually his last act was in support of that. For he was slain by an assassin's bullet in 1968 as he was preparing to lead yet another of the many demonstrations he had led in behalf of striking black sanitation workers in Memphis who were demanding union recognition.

That was but one of many examples of King's support for workers seeking union recognition as their civil right – a right guaranteed not only by the 77-year-old National Labor Relations Act but also by the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of freedom of association.

King declared that the needs of all Americans "are identical with labor's needs: Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community."

There could be no civil right greater than the right of working people to try to meet such paramount needs, as well as to be clearly informed of their right to

do so through unionization.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.


a few oddities like docks and airlines. with old industries, like steel and cars, there was an argument for unions, especially back in the day when conditions were harsh.

But the modern economy emphasizes services and technology, and unions have no relevance there - most of us knowledge workers want the freedom to excel and exceed, and be rewarded for that, rather than have everyone on the same payscale watching the clock and waiting until 5pm.

Unions membership has been declining for decades and will continue to. In another generation or so, they'll only be in the history books.

Posted by Guest on May. 14, 2012 @ 11:57 am

Repeal or bankruptcy. Hoping for a November 2014 ballot measure...

Posted by Guest on May. 14, 2012 @ 12:28 pm


1) Getting rid of collective bargaining
2) Switching all public pension plans over to DC
3) Across the board pay/benefit or jobs cuts to gain immediate savings
4) De-unionize all workplaces
5) Outsource most services except perhaps for public safety

Taxes could then eventually drop and ecnomic growth would flourish.

Posted by Guest on May. 14, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

That's an unconstitutional assertion of the state's power. If you're a conservative the last thing you should be advocating for is a vast expansion of the state's power to impose its will on private workplaces.

Outsourcing all public services is a terrible idea as well. Education should not be monetized nor should healthcare - we're in the situation we're in in this country because we've monetized healthcare and allowed the profit motive to rule in this vital industry. Certain segments of government services should not be sold or run according to capitalist dictates.

The state cannot also, because of contract law, switch defined pension payout plans to 401ks for those who are currently retired. It could, however, force new workers into 401k plans - which I think is not a bad idea.

Posted by Troll II on May. 14, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

The State (City/County) could "freeze" pension plans in place (a "vested" right is for time worked, not for future time otherwise, there'd be no right to lay someone off) and put current employees into 401k-type plans. This is the only way out and it's time to run it through the courts. Doubt insolvency is the answer.

Posted by Guest on May. 14, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

fire government workers just as with everyone else - CA is an "at will employment" State.

Posted by Guest on May. 14, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

Just stripped of collective bargaining power, and made a purely "contract in" options for employees. As such, it would be more like a benign "staff association" like many professional bodies have, e.g. AMA, Bar Association etc.

Healthcare isn't public-run anyway so it doesn't need to be outsourced or privatized, except the odd entity like SFGH.

Education is public but of course many people opt to go outside that system, either thru charter schools or full-blown charter schools. A voucher system could achieve a de facto privatization while retaining existing schools and teachers, except that they would compete with each other.

As for DB schemes, yes, don't change existing retirees and hope they won't bankrupt us. Immediately freeze the existing DB scheme and make all new employee contributions into a DC scheme, with or without matching depending on the numbers. New employees would only have the DC option.

Fixing the mess is actually easy - it just takes courage and spine.

Posted by Guest on May. 14, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

in history. It's hard to point to the 10% of Americans who are employed by unions as being responsible for all of our problems. What does the pilot's union at Southwest Airlines have to do with your financial situation - or that of the country as a whole? Why is it any business of yours if workers in private industry choose to organize and collectively bargain or not? If you disagree with their choices you can always patronize some other business.

The government should give a match to its employee's retirement accounts - private business does the same thing and you should have equity between private and public employers so as to attract the best workers possible.

Posted by Troll II on May. 14, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

the vast majority of Americans. I would not make it illegal for unions to exist, but I might well choose to shop at WalMart over Safeway, because the former is non-union and the latter is not. And of course, WalMart stuff is cheaper as a result.

If a company wants a union, that's fine. But they should also be free to show them the door and go non-union.

Many private employers do not match employee 401K contributions and those that do typically only match the first few percent. I didn't rule out the possibility of matchign but only if the voters are happy to pay the extra taxes to fund that. Nobody sibsidizes me pension so why should I subsidize yours?

Posted by Guest on May. 14, 2012 @ 4:49 pm

by which to measure how well we should treat employees. Wal-Mart is not my idea of a great company in almost any way. And working in the high tech field I don't know any business which doesn't provide at least nominal matching of an employee's 401k. It's unfortunate your company doesn't provide that for you because here in the Bay Area most businesses do.

You're welcome to chose non-union businesses if you want to. However there's usually not a huge differential in cost between them. Fed Ex isn't cheaper than UPS and Southwest is the cheapest, fastest and usually most efficient way to travel - DESPITE being a union company. They're also very safe too.

I think you're missing the point with the reference to a company being "free to show them the door" if they want. Unions represent employees - not businesses. Businesses do not get to dictate to their employees whether they chose collective bargaining or prefer individual. That's a choice the employees make on their own.

Posted by Troll II on May. 14, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

some high school dropout who works there is being stiffed, then, frankly, I don't. I just want cheap.

Like I said, I wouldn't ban unions, only strip them down. And while employees can yap about their rights all they want, nobody can force me to pay them a penny more than I want to, unions or not.

It's only the public sector that has this problem.

Posted by Guest on May. 14, 2012 @ 5:57 pm

Don't you mean to say you do just want cheap, regardless of working conditions? So, by the same token, 'indentured' (i.e. slave) and child labor aren't factors in your thinking, if I have it correctly, just as long as you find cheap prices. Didn't the South make this argument?

Of course, LA DWP workers kept busy and LA's power on back in the days of rolling blackouts from our deregulated markets, I noticed. That was around the time Enron employees were handed pink slips. Fun.days. Oh, and for the sake of discussion, I'm lending to the impression/assumption about LA workers being unionized to keep topicality focus on merit, and they're public employees.

My favorite T-Shirt slogan from years ago still rings true about this issue and what scares but also fascinates me about that place: "Mall-Wart: America's favorite place for cheap plastic crap." But, how do you really feel about prison, slave or child labor when, hey, cheap prices that can't be beat anywhere else? This may suggest that there is some level of awareness and responsibility required for consumers beyond assuming a lockstep bystander effect with hollow "Stepford"-ish smiles as our carts roll pass each other down the aisles.

Posted by Michael R, District Five and still alive on May. 21, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

problem if other countries have laws that are somewhat different from here. I try not to suffer from the arrogance that says that American values have to apply and be imposed in Cambodia or Vietnam or any other place - that's the conceit for which we are universally despized overseas.

No, I just want a cheap pair of jeans without some holier-than-thou shmuck laying a guilt trip on me, capiche?

Posted by Guest on May. 21, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

Seems like to me that if I am paying taxes and you don't need the as manyk people to do the job than I am overpaying for the services now and if you cut the jobs now how come (maybe eventually taxes will come down,if your costs go down now so should mine.we know what you are really saying that we will lay some off and then rehire nonunion and we can all get raises or bonuses.and if you are going to outsource most services,why not public safety, are you afraid to say that!!!!

Posted by GuestVicky on May. 15, 2012 @ 9:25 pm

The only reason that any company that has collective bargaining would go bankrupt would be from corporate greed.or from the people at the top trying to get more in their pockets.by getting people to believe that crap that there is no money so those people can get bigger bonuses.or raises.i work for a company that did just that,they may need to make some changes but that bankruptcy crap dont fly.

Posted by GuestVicky on May. 15, 2012 @ 9:15 pm