The plant launders bed linens and uniforms especially from hospitals and nursing homes plus fire retardant garments from heavy industry. Started as a family business, it was sold years before to a national firm. The family atmosphere of the early days changed to more standard and impersonal work rules.
The testimonies at the hearing ranged from wages to work conditions. One worker after over 40 years at the laundry still made only $6.25 an hour, a wage that kept a family of 3 in poverty. Another worker testified that when summer temperatures outside reached 90 degrees, she recorded a 118 degree temperature at her work station in the plant. Other workers complained of rigid work rules, crowded conditions and unclean bathrooms. After 2 hours of round table discussion, I puzzled over my next step.
Labor law currently favors the employer. Nationally, one-third of the workplaces that unionize never negotiate a first contract, and one-fourth more never get a second contract. The law requires employers to bargain in good faith, which essentially means meeting on a regular basis. The only correction for bargaining in bad faith however defined is a flimsy order to bargain in good faith. No fines, no penalties, no punitive damages.
As a sympathetic listener, I had no legal power. But, as a person of faith, I could use moral suasion. I discovered the owner of the laundry business was a devout Catholic living in New York, so I wrote a letter outlining the social teachings of the Church, emphasizing the dignity of every worker and the right to a just wage. Next, I contacted his bishop and asked him to hand deliver the letter, which he did on the golf course. Ten days later the negotiating team came to the meeting, letter in hand, and negotiated a contract giving everyone a one-dollar-an-hour raise.
The hearing that I and the other Church representatives convened instinctively at the industrial laundry reflects a major program of Jobs with Justice (JwJ), a community organization dedicated to improving workers' standard of living. JwJ organizes Workers' Rights Boards composed of community and religious leaders, academics, elected officials and other prominent members of the community to review workers' complaints. With no legal authority, yet with great moral authority coming from upright community members, these boards invite employers to the public hearings, then seek follow-up meetings with management to discuss the findings. If talking and mediation prove ineffective, the WRB may pursue publicity through letter writing to customers, newspapers and stockholders, or more direct action through picketing and demonstrations. These boards are operating in 20 cities and have helped janitors and factory workers, food service folks and immigrant laborers affirm their dignity in labor struggles.
Maintaining a vibrant middle class depends on protecting and advancing workers' rights. Unfortunately, anti-union sentiment appears pervasive and the right to organize must fight an increasingly hostile legal system. Union busting represents a $500 million industry that plays the system to insure property rights over human rights.
Workers' Rights Boards offer communities a way to affirm justice until labor law is reformed. No workplace is off limits or a “none-of-your-business” situation. Developing a just society demands involvement, and fairness needs community support.
Fr. Rausch is a Glenmary priest who lives, writes and organizes in Appalachia.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)
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