National labor fight embroils DIA, Auraria Campus

By Chris Bragg

Emma Cerna didn’t like being stuck making $8 an hour working in the food services section of Denver International Airport while other employees at the airport made $2.50 an hour more, so she recently decided it was time to organize.

Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Supporters of the Employee Free Choice Act chant their approval at a rally on Auraria campus in Denver.

Cerna, who came to the United States from El Salvador 15 years ago, teamed with one other co-worker and joined the Service Employees International Union. She signed a membership card and a petition in favor of unionizing and recruited other employees to join the SEIU, a huge national union that primarily represents low-income workers such as janitors.

In retaliation, Cerna says, Carnation Service Solutions, which runs food services at DIA, quadrupled her workload.

She eventually was forced to quit, she said, and some 45 additional employees who showed an interest in unionizing either were laid off or quit because of intimidation.

Now Cerna can’t find a new job.

“It’s really difficult,” she said. “All I get is, ‘We’ll call you back.’ But they don’t.”

Cerna’s experience offers a clear example of the hazards and difficulties faced by workers who want to unionize.

And that, says SEIU national president Andy Stern, is why Congress needs to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

Stern was in town Thursday morning to rally more than 400 workers at the University of Colorado Denver’s Auraria Campus, which uses Carnation Service Solutions for some of its janitorial staff.

According to SEIU Colorado president Mitch Ackerman, however, campus officials agreed a day before the rally to reopen bidding on the contract they’d signed with Carnation.

Carnation Services Solutions did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The Employee Free Choice Act, which would be the most significant overhaul of labor law since the New Deal, is shaping up as a hot-button issue for the upcoming Congress.

It also was an issue in Colorado’s recent U.S. Senate campaign, as outside groups attacked U.S. Rep. Mark Udall for supporting the legislation. Udall, however, won the Senate seat.

When Stern — perhaps the most powerful union leader in the country — was asked why he thinks a bill making it easier to unionize would gain support as businesses teeter on the brink of bankruptcy, he said pro-labor legislation is especially important during a recession.

“I think that this isn’t about unions,” Stern said. “It’s about getting the economy back on its feet.”

The Employee Free Choice Act would allow employees to unionize if a majority sign cards asserting they wish to hold a union election and turn them over to the union. This is known as the “card check” process.

It would change current law, under which employers can demand that elections to unionize be by secret ballot. Generally, it is more difficult to get employees to unionize when they can vote to do so by secret ballot.

The legislation also would require employers and unions to submit to binding arbitration if they are unable to reach a contract agreement within 120 days. Unions say that’s important because it would prevent employers from indefinitely dragging out

And, in future cases of workers like Cerna, the bill would require the National Labor Relations Board to file an injunction and charge damages against an employer when there is reasonable cause to believe a worker has been fired or discriminated against because of attempts to unionize.

Opponents of the bill say it actually would take away rights from workers because it would limit their ability to decide if they want to collectively bargain with employers by eliminating their right to a secret ballot.

“With card checks, union organizers know who has and has not signed up to join the union, allowing them to repeatedly approach and pressure reluctant workers who declined to sign after the first sales pitch,” write James Sherk and Paul Kersey of the conservative Heritage Institute, in their essay “How the Employee Free Choice Act Takes Away Workers’ Rights.”

“The Employee Free Choice Act would strip American workers of their right to a private-ballot vote, require companies to submit to binding arbitration, and increase penalties for unfair labor practices committed by employers but not by unions. Each of these provisions would be bad for American workers.”

During his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama supported the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill passed the House of Representative in February 2007, but garnered only 51 of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

However — unless the controversy surrounding the Senate replacement for Obama jeopardizes the president-elect’s Senate seat for the Democrats — the Dems probably will hold at least seven more seats in the Senate under Obama.

Ironically, according to the indictment against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, there’s a chance the SEIU could get caught up in that mess. The indictment says Blagojevich chief of staff John Harris discussed a possible deal with the SEIU during a two-hour phone call with an SEIU official on Nov. 10.

Harris allegedly discussed working out a deal with the union and Obama wherein Blagojevich would appoint “Senate Candidate 1” — Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s first choice. In return, Blagojevich would obtain a position as the national director of Change to Win, a federation of seven unions that broke away from the SEUI, and he would earn a salary of up to $300,000 a year. Finally, the SEIU would get something favorable from the Obama administration in the future, such as attention to its legislative agenda.

Some news reports finger Stern as the SEIU official who spoke with Harris, but the New York Times says it was Tom Balanoff, the president of the SEIU’s local in Chicago. Notably, the SEIU is said in the indictment only to have listened to the offer, not to have accepted it.

“I think it’s clear that the governor is out of control,” said Stern in response to a question about the phone call. “You will see the SEIU has not been involved in this whatsoever.”

Stern says he doesn’t believe the situation with Blagojevich will jeopardize The Employee Free Choice Act. He also said he’s not sure when it might see a vote before the new Congress.

The SEIU’s Political Action Committee spent $26 million supporting Obama during the campaign, by far the most any PAC spent on any campaign in 2008.

During the rally, Stern assured the crowd that Obama would bring a new day for what has been a steadily declining American labor movement. Besides the Employee Free Choice Act, the SEIU also wants Obama to pass universal health care in his first 100 days.

“Workers without a future is not the America we want,” he said. “It’s not why we elected Barack Obama. It’s not why we elected a new Congress.”