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Rite Aid Workers Stymied by Weak Labor Law

New America Media, News Report, David Bacon Posted: Mar 11, 2009

Editor's Note: Rite Aid warehouse workers in Lancaster, Calif., have been trying to organize a union at their workplace over the last three years only to face continual resistance and active disruption by management. Anemic U.S. labor laws make organizing difficult and company interference easy, but a bill being debated in Congress now, the Employee Free Choice Act, could level the playing field at a time when workers have their backs to the wall. NAM contributor David Bacon reports.

LANCASTER, Calif. After months of a media war over the Employee Free Choice Act, the bill designed to make union organizing easier was finally introduced into Congress again this week. It has been debated before, but with a larger Democratic majority, its chances of passage are much greater today, and Pres. Barack Obama has said hell sign it. Employers, therefore, are fighting it as never before.

Behind the verbal fireworks, workers on the ground say that current labor law has no teeth and must be changed. In Lancaster, Calif., one of the countrys hardest-fought organizing drives highlights the obstacles they face. A year ago, employees at Rite Aids huge drug warehouse there voted to join a union. On March 21, 2008, the National Labor Relations Board certified that union, giving it the right to negotiate a first union contract over the next year. But Rite Aid, workers say, has just been waiting for the year to expire. Once it does, the company can stop the pretense of negotiating. But an even more serious problem lies beyond. When the year is up, a group of pro-company workers will likely petition for a new election, in which the company can try to undo last years pro-union vote.

While some Rite Aid retail stores have unions, the warehouse was another story. Rite Aid has battled worker efforts there to join the International Longshore and Warehouse Union for the last three years. Weak U.S. labor laws have made it easy. The Employee Free Choice Act was written to make it harder. Thats why Rite Aid and other large employers are fighting the bill in Congress.

EFCA addresses problems at three crucial stages in union organizing drives: anti-union firings at the beginning, getting the union recognized, and negotiating that first agreement. Says Angel Warner, one of Rite Aids most vocal pro-union employees, if wed had EFCA, wed have had our union and contract a long time ago.

Rite Aid employees had good reasons to organize. The companys Lancaster warehouse was freezing cold in winter and broiling hot in the summer. Its state-of-the-art tracking system for products put punishing pressure on people to work faster, timing their every move. Ten-hour days were normal and mandatory overtime constant. If management likes you its fine, Warner said, but if youre not in good, you have to watch out because youre always on the chopping block. Ive been there since Rite Aid opened, and Ive watched a lot of people come and go.

Theres nothing out here in the Antelope Valley that could be considered a good wage, said Christine Martinez, another Rite Aid worker. You start at minimum wage and dont go up.

Little wonder that workers started thinking about a union. A lot of people think unions get organized over wages, according to Warner. But our main reasons were the working conditions, which are appalling and unreasonable. You almost feel like youre a slave, even though youre getting paid for it. And as for job security, we have none.

Three years ago, Warner and her coworkers began to organize a committee of union supporters, and got in touch with the ILWU. If EFCA had been passed and signed when it was first introduced in 2007, Warner and the other union committee members could have begun asking their coworkers to sign union cards. When they got a majority, they could have presented the cards to the NLRB. The company would then have been obligated to recognize the union.

But EFCA didnt pass, and Bush wouldnt have signed it if it had. So Rite Aid workers had a far different experience.

When Rites Aid realized its workers were organizing, it took action. First, four pro-union workers lost their jobs for small disciplinary infractions. Then, Mike Frescas was terminated after he spoke at a union meeting. Managers and security guards in red shirts hustled him out of the warehouse without even giving him a reason, Frescas said. Christine Martinez, who suffers from arthritis, was canned for not making her production quota. After three workers testified at a hearing to decide who would be able to vote in the union election, one was suspended and the other two were written up.

Firing people for their union activity is against federal law, and the NLRB announced it would issue a complaint against Rite Aid, specifying 49 violations of the National Labor Relations Act. Rite Aid managers, the Board said, had illegally tried to stop workers from asking each other to sign union cards, and threatened them. The NLRB found that General Manager Gary Konopka told workers hed deny wage increases if the union came in, and had asked them to report on union activity. Konopka reportedly even offered to finance an anti-union workers committee, and told them to lie that the committee had nothing to do with the company.

But then the Board offered to settle the charges without filing a complaint. The company agreed to rehire just two workers, Ignacio Mesa and Deborah Fontaine. Rite Aid didnt even have to admit that it had broken the law just post a notice promising not to do so in the future. To ILWU organizer Carlos Cardon, there was really no penalty on the employer for what had happened. Its like robbing a bank and getting caught, but the only penalty is that you have to put the money back.

Fear of firing is probably the single biggest reason workers dont organize unions. According to a recent report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, workers were fired for union activity in thirty percent of all union campaigns, so fear isnt unreasonable. According to report co-author John Schmitt, "The financial penalties for illegal actions, including firing pro-union workers, are minimal, so it makes perfect sense for employers to break the law to derail union-organizing efforts." If EFCA had been in effect during the Rite Aid campaign, the company would have had to pay triple back wages for its illegal firings. That would dissuade a lot of employers from breaking the law, Cardon says.

It took over two years for workers to overcome the fear and get a majority of the workers signed up. When the election was held, the vote was 283 in favor, and 261 against representation.

The company could have appealed the election results, a common tactic that can sometimes delay bargaining for years. Rite Aid, however, adopted another strategy: do nothing. Since June 6, weve had 18 sit-down sessions, Cardon explained in late February. We presented Rite Aid with 43 articles for a proposed contract wages, working conditions, seniority. Weve only been able to reach agreement on six, and the most meaningful was where to put up our union bulletin board.

Rite Aid claimed the union was demanding exorbitant wage and benefit increases, according to company representative Cheryl Slavinsky. A Rite Aid statement asserts that our wages currently are very competitive, and we offer our associates a good health plan, which is the same health plan that covers many of our other union associates. A call to Rite Aid for comment on the employees claims was not returned.

In the meantime, though, Rite Aid hired an anti-union consultant, Bell and Associates, to convince workers it was useless to organize since the union cant get a contract. People are really exhausted now, Warner says. They say, We voted this union in, but what has it done for us? Employees who were against the union before are going around getting decertification petitions filled out.

And in October 2008, Rite Aid began layoffs for the first time. Although the law requires the company to bargain over layoffs, too, it terminated 19 workers on October 21, cut the jobs of 29 others to 10 hours a week, and bargained only after its fait accompli. The union says Rite Aid hired people outside the bargaining unit to perform the same work. Since the election, Warner said, Ive seen 36 union supporters let go.

Layoffs had a devastating impact. Lancaster has a home foreclosure rate far in excess of most other California cities. The net result is more fear. We were starting to hold lunch meetings in the cafeteria, Warner recalls. More and more employees were getting involved. We did a rally right in front of the building. Managers could see it happening. The next thing you know, theyre laying off people. They beat the people back in line with this fear of youre not going to have a job anymore.

EFCAs third provision would have avoided this situation, too. After 90 days of fruitless negotiations, the bill requires both parties to submit to an arbitrator. The arbitrator would then come up with a compromise, and the company would have to sign the resulting contract. Without EFCA, Rite Aid workers will likely get a second democratic election to get rid of union representation, and return matters to where they were when workers started to organize.

Such secret ballot elections suddenly have corporate protectors. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, trade associations like the American Meat Institute, and large corporations condemn EFCA. The National Right-to-Work Committee, famous for its extreme anti-union rhetoric, says, To have a true democratic election, the voters should be free from coercion, intimidation, irregularity, or illegality. The only way to guarantee this is to make sure the voting is done in secret, safe from the prying eyes of union officials.

Rite Aid agrees. Its fair for them to vote by secret ballot, just as all of us vote by secret ballot for the elected officials who represent us, Slavinsky told Washington states Daily News.

If NLRB elections were run like normal elections, that would be fine, Warner counters. But theyre not. We would have loved not to have had to go to that secret ballot election. If we had been able to do it by card check, we would have had our union and contract a long time ago, and we wouldnt have lost so many of our people.

Employers have even proposed their own bill to kill EFCA, the Secret Ballot Protection Act, whose sponsor, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), claims voting by secret ballot is a fundamental principle of American democracy. His bill, he says, is urgently needed to stop the growing attacks on workers rights.

You can almost hear the Rite Aid workers laughing.

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