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Protecting Americans' rights at work

| Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004

American workers are losing their rights.

Over the past several months, decisions by the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency charged with enforcing labor law, have stripped workers of legal protections. The system to protect workers has been broken for a long time, but it's getting worse.

In July, the NLRB ruled that graduate teaching and research assistants were students and not technically employees. Therefore universities do not have to bargain with them.

In September, the board determined that disabled workers who receive rehabilitative services from employers should similarly not be classified as workers and therefore are ineligible to form unions under the protections of federal law.

In November, the NLRB barred employees of temp agencies from organizing with regular employees without permission from both their employer and agency. That same month, the agency also said employers could ban communications between workers expressing displeasure or anger over working conditions.

And this month, the labor board reversed a longstanding precedent and made it easier for employers to get away with threats to close a facility if employees unionize.

The NLRB under President Bush is undercutting labor's right to organize. And employers are taking full advantage.

Based on the NLRB's own figures, every 23 minutes in this country, a worker is fired or discriminated against for attempting to exercise his freedom of association.

By law, employers aren't supposed to intimidate, coerce or fire employees for organizing. But, in reality, more than half of employers illegally threaten to close down worksites if employees choose union representation, according to research by Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner. More than a third of employers give bribes or special favors to those who oppose the union. And a quarter of employers illegally fire pro-union employees during organizing campaigns.

This is not the face America wants to show the world in the 21st century. We are a better nation. A better people.

Labor unions are one of the few opportunities people have to come together in large numbers to shape the big decisions that directly dictate their work lives and indirectly affect the well being of the broader society.

Our standard of living will continue to fall until workers have a powerful voice again. If more workers had a strong voice today, it is hard to imagine that we'd have record numbers of people in poverty, falling wages, crumbling pensions, or that 45 million Americans would have no health insurance.

Many standards that define American jobs today -- such as basic safety, health protections, family and medical leave and two-day weekends -- are the result of negotiations between workers and employers.

As Americans, we value the democratic notion that working men and women should have a voice in the workplace. We believe that hard work and loyalty deserve to be rewarded and that working people should share in the benefits of the good things they help make possible.

Americans' rights at work must be restored, protected and guaranteed.

David Bonior, a former congressman from Michigan, chairs of American Rights at Work, a workers' rights advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., and teaches labor studies at Wayne State University.

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