As if you needed it, here's another reason to pass up reading The Register-Guard.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that employers have the right to prohibit workers from using company e-mail systems to send out union messages. This blocks worker-to-worker and union-to-worker contact at a time when the Employee Free Choice Act seems to be gaining momentum and as unions intensify their political work. Consider this as a boss's pre-emptive strike against you doing better in 2008.
The ruling grew out of the 2000 "labor troubles" at The Register-Guard when Newspaper Guild President Suzi Prozanski sent out a number of union messages to co-workers. The NLRB majority opinion deciding against the union cited the "basic property right" of employers to police e-mail. The twin ironies of a newspaper restricting media workers' use of technology and restricting the flow of information seems to have escaped the mainstream press. Moreover, employers could surveil e-mail and discipline workers without this NLRB ruling. This is a strong win for the bosses because a distinction is being made here between non-work-related free speech (like posting Amway ads on a bulletin board) and the daily free speech needed to organize and maintain a union at work. The ruling does not take away the right to post messages relating to businesses like Amway, wedding announcements and the like. This ruling is part of an evolving body of labor law shifting the definition of discrimination away from group rights.
The decision will be one of the last rulings made under Board chair Robert Battista. Battista's term has expired and Bush has been smart enough to not renominate him. The struggle over who will be nominated to replace Battista will say a great deal about the Republican relationship with labor and the Democrat's willingness to fight for worker rights. This should become a test for both parties and for the willingness of unions to make it so and to defend union member's rights. Unfortunately, several unions have a bad record of cracking down on members who maintain websites and blogs critical of union leadership and employers away from the workplace. Most unions accept the premise of "basic property rights" in the workplace. There was an initial outraged wringing of hands and predictable promises of taking revenge in the 2008 elections by union leaders as word of the NLRB ruling spread, but tomorrow we'll all go back to work and accommodate ourselves to living with fewer rights. The initial challenge by The Register-Guard, and similar challenges elsewhere, so scared the attorneys who run most unions that union e-mails have either been significantly curtailed or watered down since 2000. A few far-sighted unions have negotiated contract language specifying the limited use of e-mail as a union right.
An example of how important e-mail rights will be may be seen in the struggle of the workers who were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation in the cold-war era factories from the 1940s through to the 1970s. These workers were exposed to the radiation as part of cold-war era government arms economy production and were later given relatively small settlements to help pay their medical bills for work-related cancers. Now many of those workers are trapped by a bureaucracy which has routinely denied them coverage and care. Meanwhile, many of the companies directly responsible for the terrible safety conditions have gone belly-up and healthcare costs have dramatically increased. The Labor Department admits that there may have been problems in the program's offing, which finally kicked in in 2000, but the Department does not see a problem now. Almost 15,000 workers are involved.
These workers could not use company e-mail under the new NLRB ruling to organize, compare notes or discuss their conditions today. The companies could literally get away with murder. Are there more dangerous jobs out there which put workers at risk? Certainly there are. But without free speech and organizing rights workers will find it difficult to address these problems collectively.
An ironic twist is that many of these front-line arms economy production workers were eligible to join two of America's greatest unions, the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers union and the United Electrical workers. Both unions held out and refused to surrender their rights under the oppressive Taft-Hartley act. Taft-Hartley aimed at curtailing the kind of militant unionism which questioned the basic property rights of employers. They were expelled from the CIO for maintaining a progressive leadership and outlook. Mine, Mill was forced to merge with the Steel Workers union in the late 1960s and UE still exists.
The news today that J. Edgar Hoover had a plan to suspend habeas corpus and imprison 12,000 people designated as suspect during the height of the cold war--and apparently also had permission to do this at one point--is relevant here. No doubt that list included the Mine, Mill and UE union leaders. Mine, Mill successfully fought a historic heabeas corpus case more than 100 years ago and that effort is detailed in the book Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas. The best proactive voices these workers could have had back in the day had already fought and won historic battles for worker and civil rights. They were attacked by the government and corporations these workers gave their lives to help.
The best modern-day defenders of civil liberties and worker rights have proven to be the most militant unions which do not recognize the "basic property rights" of the bosses. And that is exactly why the NLRB officially took away union e-mail rights.