Don’t Subsidize Companies That Silence Workers

Tom Lewandowski Director, Workers' Project, Inc.

Will America finally grant its workers First Amendment rights?

The Constitution guarantees “freedom of speech,” the right to “peaceably assemble,” and the right to petition for “a redress of grievances.” Yet these civil rights are commonly denied to workers.

Sure, we can say what we want, but we pay a high price to speak — often losing our jobs, health care, and benefits for our families. But we pay an even higher price for not speaking.

In 2016, Kyaw Kyaw, 50, died on the job at Nishikawa Cooper, a manufacturer of auto parts in Fort Wayne, Indiana, leaving a grieving wife and family.

More than 100 of his coworkers — refugees and freedom fighters who fled Myanmar’s oppression — subsequently petitioned corporate headquarters over issues of discrimination, health, and safety.

Saw Eh Dah circulated the petition — and was then fired.

In 2018, Shacarra Hogue, a 23 year-old college student, was gruesomely crushed to death in a massive press on her fourth day on the job at Fort Wayne Plastics. Equipment manufacture safety restraints had been purposely removed.

Shacarra’s co-workers knew the job was dangerous but felt coerced to say nothing for fear of losing their jobs. Now many of her traumatized former coworkers commonly think, “If only I had said something.”

Deaths like these often go ignored unless family members and fellow workers fight back. Still, the best they often receive is a modest legal settlement — and a demand to sign a non-disclosure agreement to silence them.

This leaves other workers — and all of us — vulnerable.

Boeing workers in Renton, Washington were silenced when they tried to sound the alarm about the 737Max’s deadly safety problems. It took two crashes and 346 deaths before government and the media took an interest in the complaints of muzzled workers.

Now, according to Morningstar, the Boeing effect is “rippling through the U.S. economy, hurting the nation’s trade balance, and clouding the outlook for airlines, suppliers and their tens of thousands of workers.”

Back in Indiana, BAE, a link in the Boeing supply chain employing over 800 workers in Fort Wayne, is reducing overtime hours. The shop floor buzzes with talk of an impending lay-offs.

Boeing, its manufacturing supply chain, and the broader airline industry are subsidized by tax dollars. BAE, as well as Nishikawa and Fort Wayne Plastics, have been sometimes lavished with federal, state, or local government aid, too.

Incentives, abatements, loans, facilities, services, and training dollars are often granted to employers in the name of economic development by our elected officials. Multiple governmental entities essentially serve as covert co-employers, complicit in the silencing of workers.

Maybe holding governments liable as co-employers — or assigning elected officials a measure of fiduciary responsibility — might incentivize the government to honor workers’ First Amendment protections.

For instance, elected officials could mandate that their contracted employers no longer compel employees to sign nondisclosure agreements. Officials could also do a better job at vetting aid recipients, denying subsidies to employers with histories of sexual harassment or safety violations.

More substantively, governments could require employers receiving public largesse to recognize workers’ National Labor Relations Act protections, so employees could freely testify about safety issues or workplace abuse.

Firing or punishing workers for responsibly speaking, petitioning, and assembling would be illegal, punishable, and subject to remediation. Workers, as material witnesses and taxpayers, could petition the government to “redress grievances” and inform public policy.

And of course, they would be free to start a union without retribution.

First Amendment rights for workers are not an entitlement but a responsibility. And all of our well-being depends on their being honored.

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Reposted from Our Future

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Members of Local 7798 achieve major goal with workplace violence policy

From the USW

Workers at Copper Country Mental Health Services in Houghton, Mich., obtained wage increases and pension improvements in their contract ratified earlier this year, but the benefit Local 7798 members were most proud of bargaining was language regarding workplace violence.

The contract committed the employer to appoint a committee, including two members of the local, to draft a workplace violence policy. Work quickly began on the policy, and just last week, the committee drafted and released its first clinical guideline focusing on responding to consumer aggression toward staff.

“We are so excited to have this go into effect,” said Unit Chair Rachelle Rodriguez of Local 7798. “This was a direct result of our last negotiating session.”

The guideline includes the definition of aggression and an outline of procedures, all of which will be reviewed yearly. And though this is just a first step in reducing the incident rates and harm of workplace violence in their workplace, it still is a big one for the local, and it wouldn’t have been possible without a collective bargaining agreement.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work