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Workers' Rights Are Human Rights

ADA National President Jim Jontz' Remarks to Organizing Conference May 18, 2000

At ADA we know that our strength is in our allegiances and that is why, for over 50 years, we have been proud to align ourselves with working men and women and their unions. Our strength, in prosperity or adversity, is in our ability to work together. All of us know, whether we are union members or not, that essential to a strong, vibrant democracy is a strong labor movement.

In these days of unprecedented national prosperity, there should be no question about the basic right of workers to organize free from harassment. But, in fact, as we will learn today, anti-union forces still abound in our country and America's workers are increasingly under siege, held hostage to basic corporate greed.

The first of today's messages is this: most workers simply don't have the choice to be represented by a union because there are so many factors that prevent them from successfully organizing. Increasingly, employers look at a weak National Labor Relations Act and turn their backs on both the law and their employees. Under the present rules, it is difficult and dangerous for workers to choose a union. Unions, even fellow workers, cannot communicate in the same way with workers as a supervisor can. The supervisor's message comes with an authority, and is ignored at a price, that makes the "playing field" quite unbalanced. It would be like, in my race for a seat in Congress, my opponent could go inside the living room of every voter to make his or her case, but I had to stand out on the street. Penalties for employers are so meager that there is no reason for employers NOT to violate the rules. Union organizers expect employers to violate the rules and use all the advantages they have, and there really isn't much that unions can do about it except build their power and support outside of the workplace in an organizing drive - which, by the way, is an important means by which the rest of us can be involved.

The second message I want to convey is that we, ourselves, can be part of the problem if we look at the issue of organizing as having to do with "bad employers." Yes, there are bad employers, but it's a trap to get into a mode of thinking that "if it weren't for bad employers, we wouldn't need a union." Have you heard people say that? Thinking along those lines makes an organizing drive into a contest where the employer can prove that a union isn't needed. It puts a burden on the union to "prove" that they are needed because of the employer's behavior. It creates a path by which an employer can escape.

Unions are necessary not because of bad employers, but because unions are good. Organized workers are an irreplaceable requirement for "jobs with justice," given the inherent imbalance that employers hold in the relationship with their workers. Unions are a prerequisite to workers being treated fairly in the workplace, good employers or bad.

What is just as important is that not only do workers inherently need unions, we need workers in unions. In our society, there will not be social or economic justice without strong unions. We are not going to win our political battles over health care, over housing, over education, we are not going to achieve ANY of the causes for which we are fighting, without unions.

And, think about politics: how different would America look if all workers were organized? In my political races, I would not have gotten to first base without support from unions. There was no other way in which my political base could collectively exert its influence except through unions. How might history have been different if unions would have had twice as many members in the 5th Congressional District of Indiana?

Unions provide a social force for progressivism that is irreplaceable in today's society. This has nothing to do with bad employers. It has to do with the good that workers can do when they are organized in unions that simply cannot be achieved it they are not.

My final point is that there are very specific steps that can be taken to strengthen the right of workers to be in a union. In the 1930s, the Wagner Act extended civil liberties to American workers by recognizing their right to organize and form unions of their own choosing. But, we have seen constant efforts to erode these basic rights in recent sessions of Congress with attempts to foist employer-dictated company unions on the very workers the law was intended to protect.

There must be real penalties for employers when they violate the rules during an organizing drive. There ought to be provisions to insure fair elections, real access by unions to employees so that the message of the union has a fair chance. There must be a cost to employers to delaying recognition of a union and bargaining - it is unconscionable that there is so little substance to the duty of employers to bargain, that ½ of the workers who vote for unions never get a contract.

The AFL-CIO is fighting back with its Voice@Work Campaign about which you will hear shortly. But, this is not Labor's fight alone. Every one of us recognizes that, when organized labor wins a battle for workers' rights, all of us - organized and unorganized - benefit.

This is a battle for the greater good. It is a battle for all progressive causes. It is a battle about the future of politics in this country. That is why we have come together today to explore the problem, and move toward solutions. We in ADA are in this for the long haul. We believe you will be, too.

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