ORONO – On Labor Day, the voices of organized labor can be heard calling for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act now before the U.S. Congress.

Its provisions require that employers recognize a union after a majority of workers sign cards or petitions authorizing union representation; provide for mediation and arbitration of first contract disputes; and authorize stronger penalties for violation of the law when workers seek to form a union.

The demand for the legislation can be traced to evidence of the “standard practice for workers to be subjected to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for union activity” gathered by Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research (Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations), and published May 20, 2009, by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute.

A glance at the study reveals that “employers threatened to close plants in 57 percent of elections, discharged workers in 34 percent, and threatened to cut wages and benefits in 47 percent of elections. Workers were forced to attend anti-union one-on-one sessions with a supervisor at least weekly in two-thirds of elections.

“In 63 percent of elections employers used supervisor one-on-one meetings to interrogate workers about who they or other workers supported, and in 54 percent used such sessions to threaten workers.”

In 2008, the American Management Association reported that 75 percent of U.S. companies use some form of electronic monitoring, e.g., read e-mails, listen to phone calls, monitor workers’ tour of websites, track employees as they drive on company time, etc.

While some companies inform their employees that they are being monitored, the law does not require them to so.

Surveillance of workers, an old practice, has been updated by the electronic age. Electronically policing abuse of company property and time must be balanced against abuse of worker privacy.

On April 28, 1989, workers observed the first Workers’ Memorial Day for those who suffered from workplace fatalities, injuries, and disease. April 28 is recognized throughout the world as an International Day of Mourning. I attended the Workers’ Memorial Day in Lewiston this year.

As the name of a particular worker who had lost his life securing the means of his livelihood was called out, I arose and held a placard bearing his name. The worker was unknown to me, but it provided personal meaning to the impersonal statistics which revealed that in 2008 (latest available figures) 5,214 workers were killed at work in this nation and an estimated 50,000-60,000 lost their lives to diseases associated with their work.

More than 4.6 million other workers were reported injured that year, a figure that many assume to be very conservative in view of the fact that many injuries are never reported.

While holding the placard in memory of the worker who died at his workplace, I wondered what might the scale of such worker tragedy be if records existed from an earlier period.

In the early 20th century our own state labor officials had no idea how many lives were impacted by work-related death, disease, and injury that paralleled industrial progress.

They relied upon newspapers, as did everyone else, to read about workers who were ensnared by belting, torn by circular saws, scalded by escaping steam, dismembered by premature explosions of dynamite, fell to their death from staging or into unprotected elevator shafts or quarries, sickened or poisoned by the materials related to their work, and otherwise suffered from an infinite and varied wounds inflicted upon them by a modern industrial climate.

And yes, children with maimed hands and bodies could be counted among the victims of an unbridled productive system.

Added to the mix, as a condition of employment some employers required workers to sign contracts which exempted the employers from liability in cases of injury. (In 1909 such contracts became illegal).

Through passage of the EFCA, organized labor seeks to balance the playing field. Among the positive features of a stronger labor voice in the workplace would be to improve and monitor legislation related to occupational health and safety, and to guard against the electronic invasion of privacy.

Laws are not self-executing. The law borders on legal fiction in the absence of its enforcement. It would seem axiomatic to all that no employer, big or small, local or global, rooted in the industrial age or in the cutting edge of the post-industrial world, should be permitted to profit at the expense of anyone’s health or safety. or to arbitrarily infringe upon the jewel of personal privacy.  

Labor Day, which symbolizes the dignity and value of labor, was established in Maine in 1891. History provides ample testimony that vigilance is always required to realize the meaning and purpose of labor’s holiday.