Worker’s Story Starts Pushing Major Labor Law Reform through House

Every day Cynthia Harper went to work for two years, from early 2015 to early 2017, at the Fuyao Glass America plant in Moraine, Ohio, she wondered if she’d come home alive.

She didn’t have such worries, she told lawmakers, when she toiled at that then-unionized GM bus and truck assembly plant for the prior 14 years. That plant, she said, had a health and safety committee, regular consultations on safety issues and the union contract protected workers who spoke up.

It also had high health and safety standards. Fuyao Glass didn’t. And after Fuyao illegally fired Harper for her union activism in 2017 – thus chilling her colleagues and defeating the UAW’s organizing drive just days later – co-worker Ricky Patterson was crushed to death last March 20, caught between a mis-driven forklift and 2,097 pounds of industrial glass.

The contrast between working conditions at the unionized GM plant and the non-union Fuyao plant which succeeded it in the same building, and also Fuyao’s retaliation against her, brought Harper to Washington on March 26 to testify for comprehensive labor law reform.

Unionization, witnesses told lawmakers, not only improves wages and benefits, but more importantly, gives workers a voice and leverage on the job, including on health and safety. And it even benefits non-union workers.

As Washington University of St. Louis sociology professor Jake Rosenfeld put it, when a non-union plant is next to a union plant, the non-union plant raises wages and improves benefits “to try to keep the union out.”

Harper and Rosenfeld and pro-worker labor lawyer Devki Kirk spoke up strongly for enactment of a pro-worker rewrite of the nation’s extremely weak 84-year-old National Labor Relations Act. Harper told the House Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee members her retaliatory firing is a frequent boss response to organizing drives.

Illegal retaliation isn’t the only management tactic that helped bring union density in the U.S. down to 10.5 percent, and just under 7 percent in the private sector. Others include “captive audience” meetings which bosses force workers to attend – under threat of punishment – to listen to anti-union propaganda. And bosses hire “consultants” aka union-busters, as Fuyao did, for $800,000, against the UAW.

Bosses also issue illegal threats to close and move, which Harper described to the panel. Kirk added there are numerous management roadblocks and stalling tactics to both organizing drives and bargaining first contracts.

The Democratic majority under the prior National Labor Relations Board started removing the various management blockades, but several witnesses, including Kirk and the Republican witness from the vicious and venal National Right to Work Committee, testified the new Trump-named GOP NLRB majority is restoring those management prerogatives.

The major labor law reform measure, drafted by committee members and staffers in consultation with the AFL-CIO, would remove most, if not all, those roadblocks. It would ease the path to union recognition elections. It would mandate automatic and immediate reinstatement for illegally fired workers, like Harper.  It would ease the way for NLRB injunctions against labor law-breaking firms. 

And it would impose real fines and punishment on labor law-breakers, rather than the current sanctions, which Kirk said amount to NLRB orders to violators “to post a piece of paper promising ‘we won’t do it again.’

But it would not accomplish a two major labor goals, one of them long-held: Repeal of the 1947 GOP-passed Taft-Hartley Act’s Section 14(b), which authorized and approved state so-called “right to work” laws. The other omitted goal: Writing “majority signup” union recognition, also called “card check recognition,” into law. Card-check has been on the books thanks to a 1962 NLRB ruling, but not in law.

RTW was a major flash point for Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. She got Rosenfeld to discuss its racist origins. After Rosenfeld told the panel how a wealthy Texan dreamed up RTW in the 1940s because he feared and loathed giving any power to black workers, “right to work was born out of racism,” Fudge replied.

Rosenfeld agreed, noting states of the old Confederacy first passed RTW. Since the 2010 GOP state sweeps, however, RTW laws have spread beyond Dixie and other “red states” to former industrial bastions such as Michigan and Wisconsin.

The GOP also enacted right-to-work in Missouri, but Rosenfeld proudly told the panel that his state’s voters bounced it last August by a 2-to-1 ratio. They did so, though he did not say so, after unions, community and civil rights groups banded together in a mass drive against it.

As might be expected, the GOP panel members directed their questions to the RTW witness, attorney Glenn Taubman. But when Taubman put his foot in his mouth by saying union organizers have the right to talk to employees in the workplace, Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., the former AFL-CIO deputy organizing director, jumped on him.

“You’re wrong. I was an organizer for years and I’d be arrested if I went inside the plant,” Levin said.

Senior Republicans mouthed anti-union talking points, and viciously anti-union Rep. Robert Roe, R-Tenn., announced he reintroduced his legislation, which went nowhere in the last GOP-run Congress, to virtually destroy unions. Nevertheless, panel chair Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., told Press Associates Union News Service afterwards that she’s optimistic the labor law rewrite would get bipartisan support. She also promised to move it, though she couldn’t give a schedule.

Wilson’s subcommittee hearing was the first step for the legislation’s journey through the 116th Congress. Labor law reform got a favorable hearing from the panel and is virtually assured of a similarly favorable reception from the Democratic majority on the full Education and Labor Committee, and probably the Democratic-run U.S. House. The GOP-run Senate and anti-worker GOP President Donald Trump are another matter. 

“What I see is a big difference” from prior Congresses and prior versions of the Education and Labor Committee, which the GOP had renamed “Education and the Workforce,” Wilson said. “Seventy percent of this committee is new and they (Republicans) seem to have gained some sense,” she added.