Workers Organize Without Labor Unions to Protect Them

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Businesses and their allies in politics have done a successful job of whittling away the power of unions and nearly strangling them. Big-business is now trying to decimate public sector unions. But there are still millions of low-wage workers who suffer from long hours, low wages, and poor working conditions.

This article describes efforts by workers in New Mexico and elsewhere to gain some protection from abusive conditions by forming “committees.” Businesses don’t like this either but it is still not a labor union, with the power to bargain collectively and gain victories for workers.

SANTA FE, N.M. — Jorge Porras used to report to his carwash job here most mornings at 8:15 a.m., but he said that his boss often did not let him clock in until 11, when customers frequently began streaming in. Many days he was paid for just six hours, he said, even though he worked nine and a half hours.

One day, when the heavy chain that pulled cars forward got stuck, Mr. Porras tried to fix it, but it suddenly lurched forward and cut off the top of his right ring finger. The injury caused him to miss work for the next two weeks, he said, but he received no pay or workers’ compensation for the forced time off.

Mr. Porras and nine co-workers became so fed up that they took an unusual step. They formed a workers committee (not a labor union) and sent a certified letter to the owner of the carwash. In it, they complained about being “insulted and humiliated” in “front of our co-workers and customers” and protested being required to work off the clock and not being given goggles or gloves even though they worked with toxic chemicals.

An advocacy group for immigrant workers, Somos Un Pueblo Unido, advised Squeaky Clean’s workers to set up such a committee because the National Labor Relations Act — enacted under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935 — prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for engaging in “concerted” activity to improve their wages and conditions, even when they are not trying to unionize.

In an era when the traditional labor unions envisioned by Depression-era supporters of that law have weakened steadily, many advocates now see work site committees as an alternative way to strengthen workers’ clout and protections.

Simon Brackley, president of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, said Somos had exaggerated the prevalence of wage violations and had been too quick to pounce on employers. But Somos is not backing down, and many worker groups are now copying its work site committee idea, which has been adopted at about 35 restaurants, hotels and other companies in Santa Fe….

Only days after the Squeaky Clean workers sent their letter in 2012, the owner fired Mr. Porras, Mr. Muñoz and four others. The fired workers and Somos complained to the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office in Phoenix. That office soon filed a civil complaint against Squeaky Clean, accusing it of unlawfully retaliating against the workers for engaging in what the courts call “protected, concerted” activities.

“We knew we’d have little protection if we acted alone,” Mr. Porras, an immigrant from Guatemala, said in Spanish. “But we knew that if we formed a committee, we’d be protected.”

Ultimately, the labor board ordered Squeaky Clean to reinstate the workers and pay $6,000 in back wages. The carwash agreed separately to pay $60,000 to settle claims for minimum wage and overtime violations.

The deterioration of working conditions in low-wage, non-unionized sectors like fast food and other services makes you wonder whether there might be a rebirth of unionism. When things get bad enough, collective action becomes necessary.

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