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Now is the time to strengthen unions

The Employee Free Choice Act receives a lot of press. Despite all of the attention, I’m not sure the public understands what workers face when they try to form a union.

Here’s a pretty accurate description: imagine a football game between one team with cleats, helmets and shoulder pads playing another that doesn’t have any equipment at all. It’s not only that companies have all kinds of advantages, but that workers are so vulnerable to abuse. The Employee Free Choice Act will help even the playing field.

I’ve been through two organizing campaigns, and I hope sharing my experience will explain why we desperately need this legislation.

For 24 years, I’ve worked at a plant in Hampton where we manufacture parts for airplanes. Over the years, we’ve steadily fallen behind. I make $2 an hour less in real wages than I did in 1985. Retirees’ pensions are not enough to live on. Sadly, too many are coming back to work as temps, when they should be enjoying time with their grandkids.

I asked our managers, “What would you do if you were in my shoes? What would you do if you didn’t have medical benefits when you retired, if your pay wasn’t keeping up and if your insurance premiums were constantly rising?” My bet was that they’d do what we did, and that’s try to form a union.

So we began forming a union with the United Steelworkers. But the company fought back with a flood of intimidation. At the beginning of each shift, the company held meetings bashing the union. Consultants coached our supervisors on what to say.

As the election approached, the company held mandatory meetings every other day in which anti-union propaganda was forced down our throats. After two months of this relentless campaign, we lost.

Fear is a powerful weapon. The company won by constantly threatening that the plant could close and our jobs could be shipped overseas, and that tactic eventually ran its course.

Following the election, I was suspended for two weeks. The union took my case to the National Labor Relations Board, and I was awarded back pay. The company also had to post a notice explaining what they did. Right now, this is considered adequate punishment for breaking the law.

I’m one of roughly 31,000 cases in 2005 in which management illegally threatened, coerced or fired a worker. In my experience (and I’m not the only one), corporations have the power, and they often abuse it.

We continue to fight for a union, because we want a chance to bargain for livable wages and benefits. More importantly, though, we want dignity, respect and a voice.

There’s a saying that workers can either bargain collectively or beg individually. I’m scared that, because of the economy, workers will be less likely to stand up individually. They’ll believe they’re lucky to have a job, and they’ll take whatever corporations throw at them. With the economy teetering on the edge, this is the time to empower workers.

Our labor laws have been whittled away. Now is the time to modernize them and to even the playing field for workers. We shouldn’t stand by as corporate America flexes its muscle and tries to defeat a bill that restores fundamental rights to workers.