Allysha Almada had a very direct message for Barack Obama: “I would ask the president to reform workers’ rights, to favor workers a little more, so that companies can’t take advantage of and exploit workers,” the former intensive care unit nurse at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, Calif., said. Almada (right) should know something about workers’ rights, or lack of them. An ICU nurse for five years at the hospital, she was illegally fired this past August for campaigning to unionize the 1,200 nurses at Huntington. Their key cause was not their jobs, but patient care.
Almada was one of a group of union workers, who, along with 15 union presidents, participated in the White House Summit on Worker Voice on Oct. 7. Click below for our full report.
Almada’s still working in organizing her colleagues at Huntington for the National Nurses United and its California Nurses Association affiliate. Meanwhile, the union has had to file labor law-breaking – formally called unfair labor practices -- charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over her dismissal, and that of a fellow pro-union nurse.
Those workers and leaders told Obama and his aides about worker rights, or lack of them, in the U.S., Almada, fellow unionist Fermin Rodriguez of the United Food and Commercial Workers and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told a preview press conference.
Indeed, worker rights in the U.S. are so bad that Rodriguez, through an interpreter for his Spanish, said the NLRB had to go to court for an injunction to get his California grocery chain, El Super, to return him to his cashier’s job.
“The company does not give us adequate working hours or pay us enough to provide for our families,” Rodriguez says. The workers chose “to make life at work more different,” but when he spoke up “I was unlawfully terminated for being an activist.”
Obama called the summit, planned months ago, to highlight the obstacles workers face when they stand up for themselves, their customers and their clients on the job. The workers urged him to campaign for their rights.
“The path forward is difficult and threatening at every turn,” Trumka explained. “So we have to discuss these structural and legal threats, and the discussion has to be meaningful and expansive,” he added.
Those obstacles are many and varied and date back to the 1947 GOP-passed Taft-Hartley Act, which significantly weakened the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, Trumka said. They include minimal fines, weak or non-existent sanctions against law-breaking employers, endless delays, mandatory anti-union “captive audience” meetings, and illegal threats, firings, spying, plant closures and replacement. While those actions are illegal, firms view them as minimal costs of doing business – and carry them out.
And it’s not just workers who get hurt, Almada, Rodriguez and Trumka say. It’s patients, customers, families and the economy, too.
Almada says that as a registered nurse in the hospital’s intensive care unit, she was “an advocate” for her seriously ill and sometimes comatose patients. So she spoke up – and started organizing for NNU/CNA -- when patient care conditions deteriorated at Huntington.
“We were often short-staffed…We didn’t have enough IV pumps or clean patient gowns or bed linens.” That meant patients with diarrhea and compromised immune systems were much more vulnerable to infections, she added.
“To protect my patients, I started organizing with my coworkers” to join NNU. “The American public would be horrified if they knew what my employer did in response.” That response included the firings, hiring mobs to shout down nurses at public meetings, pulling nurses away from patient care to attend anti-union classes, harassment, intimidation, illegal quizzing of nurses on how they would vote, spying, and “verbal assault on religious leaders” who back NNU. Meanwhile, conditions continue to slide at Huntington.
The summit was designed to publicize such abuses, and the need to rewrite labor law to curb and halt them, Trumka said. But he also warned Obama that it can’t be just a 1-day event. “We know they (the administration) have to speak up with the same specificity” for workers’ rights that Obama’s trade talks team used to hash out the final version of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership “free trade” pact, announced the day before, he said.
Such labor law reform has virtually no chance in the Republican-run 114th Congress, but that isn’t stopping workers, unions and their allies. In September, the AFL-CIO and lawmakers drafted and introduced the Wage Act, to vastly increase fines against labor law-breaking firms.
And on Oct. 6, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., one of the top Democratic contenders to succeed Obama in the White House, introduced legislation to make union victories easier through majority card-check verification.
Such reforms are what Almada, Rodriguez and the other unionists and leaders attending the summit want, too.
“On behalf of my co-workers and my patients, I’m asking all of you here today and the public in general to join us in supporting strong legislative reform,” Almada says. “Our right to join a union and collectively bargain for a contract must be protected so that we can protect and care for you.”
- Mark Gruenberg, PAI Staff Writer; photo courtesy NNU Twitter