Brazen bosses.

AuthorCusac, Anne-Marie

The most basic labor right--the right to organize a union--does not exist in actual fact in many workplaces across the country. During industrialization, some labor activists gave their lives so workers could join unions and get better pay and safer working conditions.

But today the Wagner Act of 1935, which guaranteed this right, might just as well not exist. Employers have turned the clock way back. An astonishing number of them blatantly fire union organizers and otherwise illegally intimidate the work force. The power of the government to police such brazenness is limited, and many employers believe the benefits of breaking the labor laws far outweigh the risks. As a result, millions of workers remain unrepresented and at the mercy of their employers. These conditions are likely to get worse as the Bush Administration stacks the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

One company that fired unionists said it would not obey the labor law unless a judge put a gun to its head. That company is Cogburn Healthcare Center of Mobile, Alabama.

The workforce of nurse's aides, housekeepers, kitchen staff, and laundry and maintenance workers was eager for union representation in 1995, recalls Julee Jerkovich, a former organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Local 1657. The Cogburn workers gave the union "probably the most overwhelming response I've ever seen from a group of employees," she says. "We had to go back to the car to get more authorization cards because they were pulling them out of our hands."

Wages began at minimum and topped out at around $7 an hour, and "they were offered no health insurance, which was unique in all of Mobile at the time," says Jerkovich.

On top of that, the workers were treated with "a total lack of dignity," she says. "I called it a plantation."

Elaine Collins, a twenty-year nursing assistant with a stellar record, says she was paid $4.35 an hour when she first started working for Cogburn. "When I left there, I was paid $6.35. You could get a Burger King job and make more than that."

On September 27, 2001, the NLRB found that Cogburn had committed "widespread," "coercive," and "egregious" violations of labor law.

"The campaign was absolutely ruthless," says Jerkovich. The company hired off-duty Mobile police officers, in uniform, she says, adding that the police were armed. "On the day of the election, they literally surrounded the building with police officers, which was a very, very chilling thing to come across as a worker in the deep South." (The organizing unit at Cogburn was predominantly African American.)

Collins, a union supporter, says the police were also "standing around in the hallway" inside. "When the vote was over and I walked out, I was so scared."

The company, says Jerkovich, did "everything they could do to terrorize these workers. When some of them wouldn't back down, clearly what they did was start firing them, one by one. They went beyond anything I'd ever seen."

The NLRB decision, which Cogburn is appealing, said the company told its employees they would lose current benefits if they unionized, and it threatened to close the entire facility. It also vowed "not to rehire any employee who engages in protected strike activity."

The company even went so far as to retaliate against workers who testified before the NLRB. Collins "was subpoenaed to testify on behalf of the union," she says. But the day she went back to work after the hearing, "they called me into the office at about quarter to three. They said they had a lot of complaints from family members, staff members, patients."

Collins says management told her to transfer from the dining room to hall work, which requires strenuous lifting. She had done hall work before but had to transfer on a doctor's order after she injured her back. When she protested the new transferal, the company fired her.

A month later, the company wrote a letter, which it `read aloud to employees. The letter referred to six fired union supporters. It said, "The only way any of these released employees would come back is for the federal court judge to put a gun to our heads."

Owner Bill Roberts declined to comment because the case is under appeal. But a Wall Street Journal story at the time of the union campaign quoted him as denying allegations that Cogburn management was not listening to employee requests for better wages and benefits.

George Seidenfaden, president of Local 1657, says the legal system does not adequately protect workers. "We should have laws that are strong enough, that have the teeth, to order this company" to respect the right to organize.

"I think about all the years I put in there, and I got treated like this," says Collins, whom Cogburn has not returned to her job. "Right now, I should be there. I should have retirement, and I should have insurance paid for me after twenty...

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