by Brian Kaller
For most the decision came gradually, after a critical mass of workplace indignities, until one employee privately whispered to another the word “union.”
“Maria,” a Mexican immigrant who asked that her real name not be used, said she worked at an area hotel for three years—seven days a week for low pay without overtime. The last straw came, she said, when she asked a manager why some employees were getting higher raises than others, and was told she could like it or leave. A few days later she called a union for help.
Schneidkraut, one of the Landmark Theater employees who tried to unionize earlier
this year, said he and his co-workers had often talked about it “when someone
got passed over for a raise, or when we found out that people at McDonald’s
got paid more than us.” But a year ago, when employee hours were cut without
notice from five shifts per week to three, and a popular co-worker was rumored
to have been fired “under shady circumstances,” their talk became
serious, he said.
The stakes were higher for former migrant worker Victor Contreras, who unsuccessfully
tried to unionize his fellow migrant farm workers in Owatonna earlier this year.
Contreras said companies gather workers from south Texas and transport them to
Owatonna, where they labor 12-hour days for $6 to $7 an hour. His co-worker Jose
Corpus, who said he has been a migrant worker for 12 years, said workers there
sleep in company mobile homes, up to 18 crammed in a trailer without plumbing.
“We have been loyal to these companies for many years—we work much
of our lives for them, whole generations of people,” Corpus said. “Sometimes
one of us gets killed, hit by a car or some other accident … we have no
guarantees. We have no health insurance, we have to work Labor Day, we don’t
get overtime. When there is a bad season … we get no money. We want to ensure
dignity for these people, not just for one day, but forever.”
Creating a union is a difficult and sometimes dangerous endeavor, and even employees
who want to unionize are not prepared to, said UNITE HERE organizer Martin Goff,
who helped organize “Maria’s” hotel a few years ago.
“We don’t usually take ‘hot-shop calls,’” calls
from employees who want to organize, Goff said. “The fact is that many people
who call us are just not that serious.” He said he first meets with a few
employees from the company and makes them “jump through a lot of hoops”
for weeks before he is confident they are serious enough follow through.
union—then called HERE, now merged with UNITE—decided to help organize
“Maria’s” hotel because they had been targeting area hotels
for some time, he said, and because “Maria” and her co-workers convinced
Goff they were willing to “go all the way.” It is typically at this
point, he said, when a few employees have shown determination, that he shows up
at other employees’ homes unannounced to privately gauge their interest.
“This is a process that takes years,” Goff said. “In the meantime,
we have to do a ton of research” into the company and the situation, he
Even as organizers are frank about the risks, they explain the reasons people
find unions advantageous. Union employees receive an average of 33 percent more
in wages and benefits than nonunion employees and receive legal protections. Nonunion
employees have few rights on the job and can be fired for any reason.
“The analogy I use—especially with people whose English is not very
good—is to take a pencil and break it in half, and say, ‘This is you
in the workplace.’” Goff said. “Then I take a dozen pencils
and try to break them in half. You can’t do it. ‘That’s you
banding together with your co-workers and forming a union.’”
If enough employees are willing to unionize, Goff said, they have to decide how
militant they want to be. If they are willing to play hardball with the company,
he said, the union can pressure the company to sign a “card-check neutrality
agreement”—essentially an agreement that the workers can vote to have
a union and the company will not interfere.
Goff said that while the employees must decide to unionize at their own pace,
“we like it when they want to be militant—we find it gets them there
more conservative route, he said, is for workers to try to persuade their co-workers
to sign union cards and register those cards with the National Labor Relation
Board, the federal agency that regulates unionizing efforts. NLRB rules state
that when at least 30 percent of workers sign cards saying they want to be part
of a union, the agency decides whether to allow an election.
Organizers said companies typically try to delay elections as long as possible,
through public hearings, briefs and appeals to judges and to the national NLRB.
The U.S. president appoints the national NLRB, and “Bush Sr. and Bush Jr.
have stacked the NLRB against unions,” said union organizer and former Minneapolis
City Council member Jim Niland. “And they have made a lot of rulings harmful
to labor —ruling that migrant workers have no right to unionize, temp workers
can’t unionize, mentally disabled workers in a special shop can’t
unionize and so on.”
Put together, these tactics can take up weeks or months, Goff said—time
companies use to bring in union-busters, who specialize in turning employees against
unions and each other.
“They look over the workers, and don’t go for the ones that are militantly
pro-union, or even for the people who are mildly in favor of the union,”
said Bernie Hesse, an organizer for United Food and Commercial Workers’
Union Local 789, who tried to organize Landmark Employees earlier this year. “They
target scared kids who are unsure of themselves, take them into a back room and
give them a good talking to.”
Schneidkraut said Landmark Theater employees were required to attend meetings
hosted by union-busters from a firm called Labor Relations Solutions.
“They were there to solve us,” he said, laughing. “The guys
they brought in were total clowns, actually, seemed sort of bumbling. They put
up these posters and showed us videos, but they didn’t seem to have their
During one meeting, Schneidkraut said, the union busters claimed that unions fine
employees regularly to take in money. “Then they put up a tax statement
from a union to show how much they got in dues,” he said. “Someone
raised their hand and asked, ‘Hey how come there’s a zero by the fines?’
And the guy got mad and shut off the overhead projector and said if you don’t
want to hear both sides of the story you can just leave. Their presentation was
“Maria” said that, in addition to videos and meetings, union-busters
and managers began following her during her shift, watching whom she spoke to.
She said they secretly paid some employees under the table to turn their co-workers
against the organizers and each other. Their tactics were successful, she said,
and the first union election failed.
after we lost the first election the company immediately fired the people they
were paying under the table, and [the employees] came to us and explained that
they had gotten paid to speak against the union,” “Maria” said.
Sometimes the threats are more direct. While undocumented workers can legally
unionize, Hesse said they will often be deported or threatened with deportation.
“In the case of the Holiday Inn Express, we organized 12 workers, eight
of whom were undocumented, and right away they called the Immigration and Naturalization
Service,” Goff said. “In the summer of 2000, this case was the second
thing on the desk of Attorney General Janet Reno after Elian Gonzalez. She gave
the workers a two-year reprieve against deportation, and the workers received
a $72,000 tort award to share. The INS, to their credit, does not want to be used
as a weapon.”
Some organizers said they worked in situations where pro-union workers received
threatening calls in the middle of the night, or that unexpected searches “found”
drugs or stolen items in their locker, or found their car windows smashed or their
Tactics like these can successfully intimidate even the most committed employees.
Even though Schneidkraut said 90 percent of Landmark employees said they would
vote for a union, and many of his co-workers laughed at the union-busters, the
union election failed by four votes.
“We thought we were going to win by a landslide,” he said, calling
some of his co-workers “fair-weather liberals.”
“At first they were all like, ‘Yeah, unions are great, I heard about
those things in that [Noam] Chomsky book I got,’” Schneidkraut said.
“But weeks later, as it dragged on, people were realizing this was actual
“We thought a lot of these tattooed and pierced kids would be tough, but
when these [union-busters] came in they folded like toilet paper,” Hesse
said. “Give me a pregnant and pissed-off Latina woman instead; she’ll
kick anybody’s ass.”
an election fails, union proponents are often punished. Only six months after
Landmark Theater’s election, Schneidkraut said he is one of the only pro-union
employees left at Landmark that has not quit or been fired. He has been reprimanded
twice in the six months since then, and he has filed charges against the theater
for union retaliation.
“What pisses me off is, there’s this lady who has worked here for
eight years, and a union really would have helped her,” he said. “A
lot of people who got scared and voted against the union are gone now too, and
they’re fine and have moved on, but their decision is going to keep on affecting
In spite of all the efforts against them, however, employees sometimes win their
battle. Schneidkraut’s co-workers lost and gave up, and Contreras’
migrant workers lost but may try again. “Maria” was intimidated, humiliated
and stalked and the workers’ first union election failed, but she and others
persevered and won a union the next year. Now, she said, the employees have a
good relationship with the hotel owners—one reason she asked not to have
her name or the name of the hotel used.
Few institutions are more broadly supported than labor unions in America. Seventy-four
percent of Americans surveyed in a recent Zogby poll believe unions help their
members, and more than half believe they help the companies they work for, as
well as the U.S. economy. Two-thirds of all Americans support unions, and more
than half say they would join a union if given the chance.
Yet no other institution is as invisible in the media. Flick on the television
tonight and you will see programming for fundamentalists, football fans, interior
decorators, Civil War buffs and any other profitable demographic. But while
many network dramas and sitcoms are set in the workplace, none mention unions.
Not a small number. None.
high school students read about the literal battles between striking workers
and soldiers that historian Howard Zinn calls “America’s second
Civil War.” Billions of people worldwide celebrate May Day, a holiday
begun to honor American strikers gunned down in Chicago. It is only in the United
States that decades of silence have erased any memory that such a holiday exists.
Even famous figures like Susan B. Anthony, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller and
Martin Luther King Jr. are blanched of their union cards.
With a handful of exceptions, Hollywood movies do not allude to the existence
of unions. There are no radio shows about unions, save a few Internet feeds.
Unions are the media’s only remaining taboo. They don’t exist.
It wasn’t always this way. Fifty years ago, according to media critic
Robert McChesney, there were about 1,000 labor reporters nationwide. Just as
most newspapers today have a business section for the small percentage of Americans
that are employers, most newspapers then had labor sections for the majority
of Americans that are employees.
“Sometimes you have to take control of your own message,” Hesse
said. “In 1947, the AFL and the CIO—they weren’t merged yet
—owned five major-market radio stations, and they gave them up. Can you
imagine the power they would have if they had held onto a piece of the media?”
Unions are rarely mentioned by bloggers and television pundits, but no institutions
are more crucial to understanding the country’s political tides.
your average white male voter: In the 2000 election they chose George W. Bush
by a considerable margin,” wrote Thomas Frank in his book “What’s
the Matter with Kansas?” “Find white males who were union members,
however, and they voted for Al Gore by a similar margin. The same difference
is repeated whatever the demographic category: women, gun owners, retirees and
so on—when they are union members, their politics shift to the left. This
is true even when the union members in question had little contact with union
leaders. Just being in a union evidently changes the way a person looks at politics.”
Most European nations have stronger union membership than the United States
does, Niland pointed out, often with political parties of their own. It is no
coincidence, he said, that most of those nations have national health care,
more vacation time per year than Americans and more employment benefits.
When American unions were strong, from the 1930s to the 1960s, Democrats controlled
most or all branches of government. Both major parties agreed that the poor
should be taxed very little, but millionaires’ income should be taxed
at a rate of 93 percent. The gap between the wealthy and the poor was at an
all-time low. Average Americans, union or not, attended clubs and civic groups
48 percent more often than now. Voting was up 30 percent from today.
“You can see the results of decades of organizing even in things like
the way women are treated in the workplace,” Hesse said. “Twenty
or 25 years ago you wouldn’t believe the things managers said to women,
things that would never be tolerated today in any place of business, union or
Once union membership declined from 40 percent to its present 9 percent, politics
changed. Now Republicans control all branches of government, and both major
parties agree that millionaires should pay taxes at about the same rate as the
destitute. Fewer people vote, and social services have eroded—but least
in states like Minnesota, where unions still have some presence.
like that of “Maria” and Schneidkraut and Contreras happen every
day, largely unreported and forgotten. But it is people like them, more than
any president or general, who have shaped America.
Few Americans today would accept the 16-hour workdays, dangerous conditions
and 22-cent-an-hour wages of a century ago. Weekends, overtime pay, the minimum
wage, unemployment benefits, vacations and Social Security are taken for granted
by many Americans, yet people living today remember when such freedoms were
“We need to rebuild a working-class movement in this country,” Niland
said, noting that labor has been through worse times than this and come back.
Unions might be struggling, but employees today will not face the clubs and
machine guns of a century ago, none of the mass deportations and massacres.
Other Americans before us have already faced them, and won. ||