Organized labor rallies for rights to form unions

WASHINGTON -- Several hundred union members rallied outside the Labor Department on Wednesday, calling for tougher laws to protect American workers and denouncing the Bush administration for what they said were anti-union policies.

The rally was one of more than 90 events in 38 states designed to call attention to hurdles workers face when trying to form unions.

Shawn Franklin, a Transportation Security Administration airport screener at the rally, cannot bargain as part of a union for pay and work conditions because government officials said such actions would be incompatible with the war on terror.

"I have a right to free speech and to free association because the Constitution tells me so," Franklin said.

Just 13.2 percent of the U.S. work force belongs to a union, an all-time low.

Labor leaders say they have been unable to stop the steady decline because employers are more aggressive and sophisticated about fighting unions. Penalties are weak for breaking laws that are supposed to protect workers' rights to form unions, they say.

But Randy Johnson, Chamber of Commerce vice president for labor policy, said new laws will not reverse unions' decline.

"Moving away from the shopworn rhetoric of the 1930s and creating an agenda and program relevant to today's work force will do more to add to union membership rolls than" new laws, he said.

In downtown Seattle, a couple hundred union members demonstrated outside the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building.

Right to organize

"We want the federal government to know that the right to organize is ours, and don't mess with it. It's that simple," said Jeff Butler, a member of Iron Workers Local 86.

In Houston, Wal-Mart employee Larry Lee says that since he started talking about forming a union a few months ago, he has been assigned to work alone in areas of the store away from his co-workers and is monitored when he walks to his car or goes to the bathroom.

But he is continuing to try. "The worst thing you can do is not try," said Lee, 42, who stocks shelves at night in a Houston store. "I'm dead serious about what I'm doing here. I'm committed to what I'm doing here."

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. spokeswoman Christi Gallagher said she was unaware of Lee's situation, and the company "does not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind."

Wal-Mart has an "open door policy" that encourages employees to talk with managers at any level, including the chief executive, about all concerns and ideas, "without fear of retaliation," she said.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, speaking in New York, said the freedom to organize a union "is at the heart of economic justice. It's just as precious as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and we're going to fight for it."

The AFL-CIO is pushing for legislation that would eliminate National Labor Relations Board elections and certify a union after a majority signs authorization cards. It also would increase penalties for employers that intimidate or fire workers for union activity.

But the bills, sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., stand no chance of passage in the Republican-controlled Congress.