The Power of a First Contract | Radio Talk Show Host Leslie Marshall
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The Power of a First Contract

The Power of a First Contract

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James Golden knew the crowbar wasn’t the right tool for the job, but it’s what the bosses provided when he needed to perform work on a piece of equipment at the Kumho tire plant in Macon, Ga.

The crowbar slipped from Golden’s hand and smacked him in the head. Bleeding, yet unable to find adequate help on the sparsely staffed night shift, Golden drove himself to the hospital while a supervisor agonized over whether to fill out paperwork about the injury or try to get the machine operating once more.

While the memory of that night still infuriates him, Golden takes comfort knowing that he and his 325 co-workers now have the power to protect themselves, look out for one another and hold management accountable.

Along with wage increases, better work-life balance and other wins, the workers gained a real voice on the job two weeks ago when they ratified their first contract with Kumho as members of the United Steelworkers (USW).

The contract establishes a labor-management workplace improvement committee, affording Golden and others on the front lines the means to address issues like turnover, efficiency and quality.

The agreement also mandates a joint health and safety committee, giving workers not only a say in how to properly operate and maintain equipment but a role in developing emergency plans and input into other aspects of plant safety.

“It’s a new day,” Golden said, referring to the power of a first contract to level the playing field and afford workers a seat at the table. “This is the law of the land.”

Workers who want to band together for better futures often face prolonged and brutal anti-union campaigns from employers hellbent on holding them down.

Kumho, for example, committed such egregious violations of workers’ rights that an administrative law judge at one point ordered company representatives to call a plant-wide meeting and read a statement acknowledging their illegal conduct.

“Solidarity means everything,” said Golden, recalling how workers met at bars and cookouts to build the union drive and support one another during management’s attacks.

“I know each of us was going to have a better work environment and a living wage,” he added, explaining his own commitment to the effort. “I have no problem sacrificing for the greater good. I’m a veteran. I sacrificed eight years to go and serve my country.”

Workers ultimately achieved victory in 2021 when the National Labor Relations Board certified their vote to join the USW, making them the first U.S. tire workers to unionize in more than 40 years. But then, like all new union members, they immediately began a new battle at the bargaining table, testing their collective resolve all over again.

When bullying fails to stop workers from organizing, many employers simply shift gears and try to thwart bargaining.

More than one-third of companies use anti-union attorneys to derail negotiations, and a quarter threaten to close workplaces in an effort to sabotage contract talks, among other abuses, according to new research by Cornell University.

Starbucks’ “dirty war” on baristas, for example, includes starving union leaders of work hours in a bid to make them quit and dragging out negotiations with the aim of gutting solidarity, frustrating workers and killing the union.

Kumho similarly bogged down negotiations for two years, balking at raises, nitpicking language and throwing up other roadblocks. But union activists stayed the course and worked hard to engage new hires, averting the threat that turnover poses to collective strength.

“We didn’t give up,” observed Christopher Burks, who served with Golden on the workers’ bargaining committee, noting that a grievance procedure and other protections from bullying are among the first contract’s greatest strengths.

Similar concerns have prompted growing numbers of workers, across numerous industries, to unionize in the wake of the pandemic. And now those organizing victories are generating a wave of first contracts with transformative changes.

That’s especially evident in the South, where more and more workers are rising up against employers and right-wing politicians who long conspired to oppress them and keep unions out.

Nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C., secured a first contract in 2021 that affords them a long-overdue voice on the staffing issues crucial to worker and patient wellbeing. Workers at a Coca-Cola Consolidated warehouse in Kentucky ratified a first agreement last spring providing a much-needed grievance process and other enhancements.

And newly unionized cleaners at Virginia Commonwealth University just negotiated historic pay increases, forcing the school to begin valuing them.

“You’re not getting what you’re worth for the job that you do,” Burks said of many workers in the South, noting that some companies deliberately locate in the region to exploit the historically poor wages and low union density.

“Some people are waking up and not going for that. It’s just like at Blue Bird,” he added, referring to about 1,400 workers at the Fort Valley, Ga., bus company who voted in May to join the USW and seek better working conditions.

Many other workers also want to join unions and gain a voice on the job, but they need the support that only a long-overdue modernization of America’s labor laws can provide.

Right now, companies regularly obstruct organizing and bargaining because it’s so easy for them to get away with it. Workers’ unfair labor practice charges take months or even years to resolve. Even then, employers like Kumho face virtually no penalties for illegally firing workers during union drives or dragging out talks.

Golden and Burks want Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organizing (PRO) Act, which would make it easier for workers to exercise their will and impose fines on employers who break the law during union drives. It also would force employers to the negotiating table and impose mandatory arbitration when employers refuse good-faith bargaining for a first contract.

“I think it would finally make the employer respect your rights,” Burks said.