Published on Friday, August 23, 2002 in the Long Island, NY Newsday
What About Corporate Terrorism?
by David Moberg
Until 1998 Sherri Bufkin happily worked as a manager for Smithfield Foods
in Tar Heel, N.C. But in 1997, when workers in the giant meatpacking plant
there began to organize a union, her superiors - she has testified -
forced her to join their campaign to "do whatever was necessary to keep
[the union] out."
Bufkin also said she had to tell workers that they would suffer violence
and lose jobs if they formed a union, and that she had to discriminate in
assignments against pro-union workers. Worse yet, her bosses insisted that
she fire some workers simply because they openly supported a union. Then
they demanded that she sign false affidavits about management's tactics -
many of which clearly violated laws protecting workers' right to organize.
Shortly after she refused to lie for the company at a National Labor
Relations Board hearing, Smithfield fired her, plunging her into prolonged
unemployment and bankruptcy. "I don't regret standing up for the truth,"
she told a June 20 Senate committee hearing on obstacles to forming
unions, "because now I can look my daughter square in the eye."
Senators also heard from workers - like nurse Nancy Schweikhard, ship
captain Eric J. Vizier and hotel worker Mario Vidales - who told of being
the direct victims of management harassment, threats to close their
workplaces, a beating by anti-union thugs, and arrests or surveillance by
police cooperating with anti-union employers.
But few other Americans heard these stories, because the hearing went
nearly unreported. That's a shame. At a time when the country is
preoccupied with terrorism from abroad and Enron-style corporate abuses at
home, it is important to remember that millions of American workers who
would like to have a voice on the job have been denied their
internationally recognized human rights by corporations who "in too many
cases act like real domestic terrorists," in the words of AFL-CIO
organizer Stewart Acuff.
According to Senate testimony from Kenneth Roth, whose Human Rights Watch
group two years ago documented "widespread labor rights violations" in the
United States, in the 1950s a few hundred workers a year were fired -
illegally - for trying to organize unions. But in 1998 - despite a much
lower level of union organizing activity - 24,000 workers lost their jobs
just because they were trying to exercise their internationally guaranteed
freedom to associate with other workers on the job.
Now, less than 14 percent of the U.S. workforce belong to unions, but
surveys suggest that 44 percent wish they did. Employer threats, firings
and systematic intimidation stifle many bids to unionize. In 92 percent of
all organizing efforts, employers force workers to attend anti-union
meetings. In half of all campaigns - and more than 70 percent of
organizing at manufacturing businesses - employers threaten to close the
business and, often, to move overseas, if workers unionize.
This month, workers at Quadrtech, a small manufacturing plant in Southern
California, reached a financial settlement with management that also
marked the end of their attempt to unionize. Nearly two years ago, a
federal court issued an injunction to stop the owner from moving to Mexico
in order to avoid unionization. But the company reportedly kept trying to
Even when workers overcome employer obstacles and vote - or otherwise show
support - for a union, managers often refuse to negotiate a contract. For
example, much-abused farm workers have voted in 428 elections for the
United Farm Workers since 1975, but growers have only signed 185 contracts
(although a bill awaiting California Gov. Gray Davis's signature would
require binding arbitration in deadlocked negotiations). Employers suffer
minuscule penalties that don't deter lawbreaking.
Early this month, the AFL-CIO launched a new campaign to protect worker
rights at work, especially the right to join unions without interference
from employers. A stronger worker voice would increase economic security
and equality, restrain abuse of corporate power, and enhance democracy.
As Kenneth Roth told the senators, "if the rights of workers are not
respected and protected, then the strength of American democracy and
freedom is diminished."
Democracy and freedom need protection from physical threats of terrorists
- and from overzealous antiterrorists, like the Bush administration, which
wants to deny workers in a new Department of Homeland Security both civil
service protections and the right to organize into unions.
But democracy and freedom also must be safeguarded against the corporate
economic terrorism that hurts us all, not just working people directly
denied their rights to join together in a union.
David Moberg is a senior editor at the newsmagazine In These Times.