Bay Area Workers Hold Vigils for Employee Free Choice Act
Sending A Message to Dianne Feinstein: “The Time is Now.”
On May 6 and 7, more than 1,000 workers across the state attended vigils in San Francisco, Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego to highlight the urgency of passing the Employee Free Choice Act. They were joined by a diverse group of interfaith leaders, community allies, economists, academics and elected officials, who came out to express their support for workers’ rights and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).
Hundreds of Bay Area union members attended a 26-hour vigil at the Federal Building in San Francisco organized by the San Mateo County and San Francisco Labor Councils and California Labor Federation. The event was designed to call on Congress to pass the EFCA and urge Senator Dianne Feinstein to sign on as a co-sponsor. At one time a supporter of the EFCA, Feinstein recently indicated that she would not vote for the bill. Participants wrote letters and spoke out to send a message to Sen. Feinstein, the only Democrat in California not currently signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill, that now is the time to reform labor law and rebuild the middle class. California unions who endorsed and helped elect Feinstein pledged to continue to pressure her to keep her commitment to support the Employee Free Choice Act.
The EFCA would allow workers to form a union when over 50 percent sign union membership cards, would impose greater penalties on employers who discriminate against union supporters, and would provide for mediation and arbitration when employers and unions fail to negotiate first contracts. It would restore balance and give workers—not their bosses—the freedom to decide how to form a union. Its passage would enable workers to unionize without the interference, delays, and legal and illegal barriers put up by employers.
Feinstein has indicated that she feels that EFCA could be bad for business during the current recession. But California Labor Federation Executive Secretary Treasurer Art Pulaski pointed out that, “It wasn’t working people who caused the economic problems. It was the CEOs, the top one percent who control 23 percent of income. They don’t want to share the wealth, and they know that when workers are organized they will have a voice at work. That’s why employers are fighting the Employee Free Choice Act.”
Pulaski cited statistics showing that in union organizing drives, 50 percent of companies threaten to close; 80 percent hire attorneys and anti-union consultants to harass and intimidate workers, and the current union election system allows companies to delay elections and first contracts. “Now is the time to fix labor law and allow organizing to take place in a way that is fair and just,” Pulaski said. “Families deserve a fair deal again.”
Noting that, “Every Democrat in our State Assembly, State Senate, and Congressional delegation supports the Employee Free Choice Act,” Pulaski said that only Senator Feinstein opposes it and, “We need her vote and we need it now. When they say that now isn’t the time, they betray workers. We need to rebuild the middle class from the ground up, and the Employee Free Choice Act will enable us to do that.”
A group of interfaith leaders also called on Feinstein to, “open her ears and soften her heart so that she may help all those who she was elected to represent.” On the evening of May 6, workers and interfaith leaders held a candlelight vigil at the SF federal building as well as other locations around the state. Rev. Carol Bean of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, said that the alliance between the faith community and labor was important in the struggle against abuse of workers. She urged participants to sign a poster to be sent to Feinstein and add their stories to a wall, “so that she cannot ignore the voices of the workers.”
Several workers told of their experiences in union organizing drives, including Sara Steffens, who was laid off after helping her co-workers form a union at the Contra Costa Times. Steffens said she was surprised at the level of intimidation and the misleading campaign waged by her employer, who she never expected to be so hostile to workers’ attempts to form a union. She said it’s critical that workers have a role in making decisions in the workplace, and she wants to help prevent the kind of abuses that occurred during her struggle to form a union, and that’s why she’s working on behalf of the Employee Free Choice Act.
Jesus Martinez described his experience working as a floor cleaner at Safeway. He said that when he worked 100 hours he was only paid for 80, but was afraid to speak up out of fear of losing his job. He said that now as a member of Service Employees International Union Local 1877 he earns a living wage and has health care coverage.
The SEIU State Council helped bring out a strong contingent of their members from several locals for the vigil. Community organizations voicing their support for Employee Free Choice represented the Gay and Lesbian, Latino, and Chinese American communities, as well as the Sierra Club.
Activists from the Chinese Progressive Association spoke at the vigil May 7. Feiyi Chen told of her experiences working for a non-union electronics manufacturer and how the CPA had helped workers get severance pay. She said that the EFCA was an important way to advance workers’ rights. “I learned that it is difficult to get justice without a union,” she said. Ms. Chen said that in Chinatown many workers don’t have union representation and are low paid and exploited. She told of a restaurant worker whose boss stole her tips, then changed her schedule when she complained, forcing her out of the job. “If the workers had a union, the boss wouldn’t be able to do this,” she said.
Several elected officials spoke in support of the EFCA, including San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, Assembly member Fiona Ma, San Francisco Board of Supervisors members Eric Mar and David Campos and Board President David Chiu. Campos said that the Employee Free Choice Act was about more than just labor. “As important as it is to protect the rights of workers, we are talking about protecting the rights of entire communities,” Campos said. “You cannot say that you are for the rights of the Latino or Gay and Lesbian communities if you don’t support the rights of workers to organize on their own terms. They are linked because statistics show that workers who are part of unions will get the fair compensation they deserve and that helps build communities. We need the labor protections.” He added that, “To Senator Feinstein I would say not only is this the right time, but it is a critical time. You cannot give corporate welfare and bail-outs to Wall Street and not give workers the ability to organize. I think that the workers should come first.”
A statement from Mayor Gavin Newsom was also read that expressed strong support for the EFCA, saying that it puts power back into the hands of workers, who are the backbone of the economy.
Supervisor Chiu said that as a small business owner, he supported the Employee Free Choice Act because it helped to level the playing field for businesses who treat their workers fairly and pay a living wage.
Noted University of California-Berkeley economist Steven Pitts highlighted the economic necessity of the Employee Free Choice Act: “Academics and economists across the country agree that the Employee Free Choice Act is critical to rebuilding our economy and restoring the American Dream,” he said. He pointed out that if EFCA was passed and more workers were given the freedom to choose union representation in the workplace, the state’s economy would benefit from their increased spending power.
On May 7 scholars across the country from disciplines that run the gamut from economics to sociology signed a letter expressing their support for EFCA, calling it critical for lifting our economy out of the recession, and protecting democratic values.
SMCLC Executive Secretary Treasurer Shelley Kessler noted that, “Giving more workers the chance to bargain collectively isn’t just good for workers, it lifts the entire economy. When workers earn better wages, they spend those earnings in their local communities—supporting small businesses that are also hurting in this severe economic crisis.”
Kessler cited statistics showing that workers’ incomes dropped from 2000 to 2007 and that corporate executives are paid more than 275 times what the average worker earns. “Now is the time to bring balance back to our economy,” she said. “Now is the time to give workers a fair chance to bargain with their employers for a better life. Now is the time for the Employee Free Choice Act.”
SFLC Executive Director Tim Paulson said that the Employee Free Choice Act was the most important piece of legislation for workers in two generations, and urged union members to keep calling and writing to Senator Feinstein.
The San Francisco vigil ended with interfaith leaders reading a list of recent organizing campaigns and participants responding with, “The time is now!” They cited the campaigns for union contracts by the 300 workers at the Contra Costa Times still waiting for a just contract, the Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf Hotel with 200 workers organizing since last summer, the Meridian Hotel in San Francisco with 150 workers organizing since last summer, Camp Recovery Centers in Santa Cruz organizing since 2008, the 1,300 workers in Petaluma’s St. James Hospital organizing since 2004, Blue Diamond in Sacramento with 400 workers organizing since 2004, and several others.
Other Statewide Actions
In San Diego, more than 200 union members affiliated with the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council and community partners held a 24-hour vigil outside a San Diego Wal-Mart where they spoke out against the corporate giant’s anti-worker policies and opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act.Vigil participants approached shoppers as they entered Wal-Mart and asked them, “If your signature is good enough to join the military, why doesn’t Wal-Mart believe it’s good enough to join a union?” Workers distributed 4,000 leaflets asking customers to pose this same question to Feinstein.
More City Councils Endorse EFCA
Last month, the Sacramento City Council, Santa Rosa City Council and Santa Ana City Council all passed resolutions in support of the Employee Free Choice Act. In California to date, 13 cities and counties and 74 local elected officials have endorsed EFCA, including South San Francisco and San Mateo County.
The SMCLC has sample letters to send to Sen. Feinstein as well as letters to the editor, and sample resolutions to bring before City Councils and County Boards of Supervisors. Call (650) 572-8848 for more information.
For more information check www.aflcio.org/joinaunion/voiceatwork/efca/.