Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Doing That One More Thing

It's what keeps me going day to day and what keeps me awake at night. It's the source of that righteous anger that wells up inside me and the giddy excitement I feel when there is a victory. It's the thousands of workers over the years who have told me the all-too-familiar and all-too-heartbreaking stories that come with the territory of having no voice on the job.

Young workers being asked to perform potentially life threatening jobs without proper safety precautions. Caregivers for the disabled who are working until they die because their calling of caring for others has provided them no possibility of retirement. Workers of color who face racial slurs from their supervisors and deaf ears from management. Single moms whose employers deduct money illegally from their paychecks and only occasionally pay them fully for the hours they worked. Loyal employees about to be outsourced by a disloyal employer just so management executives can pocket some big bonuses and look good for their investors.

Organizing is my life, not just my job. And recently, the aggressive concentration of corporate power has made my life much more challenging. This is a blog post I have been mulling over for quite awhile and I feel like it needs to come out now.

These days I am spending most of my days in airports. Sounds glamorous except that I very rarely fly anywhere. Mostly, I am there meeting with union supporters who are active in the organizing effort for American Airlines agents to join CWA (the Communications Workers of America). I do spend some of my time talking with agents who may still be on the fence about unionizing, but the truth is that much of the workforce there has come to the realization that the only way to protect themselves through a difficult time at the company and advocate for a strong future is to join together collectively in CWA. They want the ability to negotiate over the sacrifices they will make during bankruptcy and to reach a binding agreement with their employer that will guarantee they share in the future profitability of the company.

As I struggle alongside these brave men and women who are fighting just to have a voice, I realize more and more how difficult it is for workers to effectively counter the corporate power that is choking our democracy. Workers at American Airlines have been through the ringer, the least of which has been a near constant anti-union campaign since they first tried to organize almost 18 years ago.

You can read about their fight to organize by visiting www.american-agents.org, by viewing their videos on the same website, and by following @cwa4aa on Twitter, but here is a quick summary of what has happened since they filed with the National Mediation Board for their government-run union election in December 2011.

The company packed the eligibility list with hundreds of ineligible voters. Even though workers had gathered signed cards from more than the 35% required to get an election, it took months to resolve the issues with the list submitted by the company. During that time, American Airlines joined with other airlines to lobby Congress to change the rules for airline union elections. In an unprecedented move, Congress legislated standards for airline union elections by tacking them on to the FAA reauthorization in February 2012 (previously the rules and standards for such elections have been set by the appointed Board members of the NMB after open comment periods, not legislated). The legislation raised the requirement for signed cards to 50% of the workgroup just to get an election - although during debate on the floor, it was made clear that the new standard was not to be retroactive.

Once the National Mediation Board resolved the issues with the eligibility list, it issued an order for an election to take place. The voting was to begin on Thursday, May 17 and end on Tuesday, June 19. The company was ordered to provide a list of employee addresses so that the NMB could mail the voting instructions to all eligible employees. For weeks, the company claimed it was having technical difficulties producing the list. Then, at the last possible minute, American Airlines filed a lawsuit in Federal Court challenging the right of the NMB to conduct the election. Apparently, the only technical problems were with the speed their attorneys could file their lawsuit. Their reasoning for the lawsuit? The law passed by Congress in February and the new 50% standard that came with it should be applied to the petition filed by the CWA in December. In other words, the workers and their Union should have had a crystal ball to know what the required threshold would be two months later (forget that the company and the NMB objected to allowing the Union to amend its petition with additional cards after the December filing).

In the midst of all of this, the company began announcing its plans to make cuts during bankruptcy. Included in the cuts was the outsourcing of hundreds of agent positions. Workers with years and in some cases decades of loyalty to their company were being tossed to the side and not even allowed a chance to vote on the question of union representation.

After more than a month of waiting while the company cooled its heels claiming it was waiting for the lawsuit to proceed, the NMB finally decided to move forward with the election using a list of addresses provided by the Union. There was a legal precedent for this approach and the union election was scheduled once again, this time to begin on Thursday, June 21 and to end on Thursday, August 2. This time the company responded by filing for an injunction. Even though AA agents who attended the court hearing were convinced that the NMB would prevail and the election would move forward, the Texas judge who heard the case had something different in mind. On June 22, Judge Means sided with American Airlines and ruled that the NMB could not move forward with the election. The NMB is expected to appeal, but in the meantime workers have already started losing their jobs under the company's bankruptcy plans. CWA and the agents at AA are convinced that if the election were to move forward, it would be proven that a majority of agents want to have a Union.

Amazingly, even in the midst of the company's tactics, there is a strong committee of workers at AA who have vowed to do whatever it takes to win their Union. Any time I speak with them, it's like a shot of adrenaline in my arm. If they can fight, then so can I. If they refuse to let the company win, then I must also refuse. So with every last bit of strength I can muster, I do that one more thing. I do it because the alternative is a country where individualism wins out over the collective spirit of community and where corporate greed wins out over fairness for workers. That's not the country I want for my son and so even in the face of an appeal at American Airlines that could drag on for months, I am all in for working on the quickest way for agents to win their Union.

I wish I could say that this organizing effort at American Airlines is unique in the frustrations workers face when trying to organize, but it is not. In the United States today, there is just not a genuine, democratic process for workers to freely choose whether or not to join a union. I have encountered similar frustrations while organizing nurses, call center reps, child care workers, public workers, direct care staff, sales reps, clerical workers, you name it. I am heartened though, that this doesn't stop workers from trying and that even when faced with the most impossible odds, the human spirit can prevail and workers can still stick together to win. I am encouraged that all of us together are part of a resistance movement, a group of ordinary people who fight back against the abuses of power and stand united for justice. (For more on this, visit http://labornotes.org/2012/06/aim-slingshot-well.) That is what keeps me going day in and day out, through the mundane tasks and the most disheartening setbacks. The people united will never be defeated, at least not in the end. It is my faith that convinces me of that and it is the twinkle in the eye of a worker who sees hope ahead that makes me grab on to it and keep pushing forward.

No comments:

Post a Comment