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Making Workers' Rights Effective

By Gregory Flannery · June 27th, 2007 · Porkopolis
  In 2005, John Pepper (right) replaced Spencer Crew (left) as CEO of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Now Crew, president of the museum, is leaving altogether.
Sean Hughes

In 2005, John Pepper (right) replaced Spencer Crew (left) as CEO of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Now Crew, president of the museum, is leaving altogether.

Here's what happens when someone gets the idea of starting a union: An organizer urges employees to sign cards asking the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to conduct an election. If more than half the workers in a proposed bargaining unit sign cards, the NLRB sends officials to conduct a secret ballot and count the results. If more than half vote for the union, the workers have achieved the right to be represented in collective bargaining.

That system, in effect since 1935, sounds pretty good -- until you look at what happens along the way.

Once an employer gets wind of the union effort, it begins pressuring employees to oppose the idea, usually arguing that a company needs flexibility that a union contract would take away. The workers conducting the campaign are often fired. This is illegal but commonplace, in part because the only penalty is that the employer must rehire the union supporters with back pay.

That, too, sounds pretty good. But the process of investigating an illegal firing and holding a trial can take a year or more, by which time all the other workers see that union supporters get their asses canned -- the most effective anti-union message of all.

Congress is considering a proposal to simplify the system. Instead of conducting workplace elections, the Employee Free Choice Act would enable workers to join a union simply by getting signatures from a majority of workers.

Republicans and businesses, of course, oppose the idea. U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) is expected to vote against cloture, effectively keeping the bill from going to a vote, according to Margaret Priebe, communications director for the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council.

"So the Senator's position is actually even worse than being against the bill," she says. "He's against even allowing a fair vote on the bill."

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is coming to Cincinnati Wednesday to pressure Voinovich to change his position. Sweeney is scheduled to address 500 union leaders and grassroots activists at Duke Energy Convention Center at noon. For more information about how to support this legislation, call the Cincinnati AFL-CIO at 513-421-1846.

Crew Leaving Troubled Museum
The president of a controversial Cincinnati museum, criticized for overspending while at the same time it seeks taxpayer subsidies, is leaving his job. Spencer Crew is resigning as president of the cash-strapped National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Although his last day hasn't yet been set, he'll become a professor in January at George Mason University near Washington, D.C. Also resigning is Love Collins, the museum's vice president of advancement, who will depart Thursday.

The announcement about Crew's departure comes less than a month after John Pepper, the retired Procter & Gamble CEO who is trying to help the museum solve its financial problems, made the dubious claim in an article in The Cincinnati Enquirer that he doesn't remember anyone connected with the facility ever promising not to seek public subsidies once it opened.

Salaries paid to Crew and Collins have been pegged as excessive by people opposed to the Freedom Center's request to receive city and state subsidies. Salaries for Collins and Crew together totaled more than $500,000, according to 2005 records.

Opened in 2004, the Freedom Center ran up a $5.5 million deficit in its first year. The museum later cut about $3 million from its annual budget and called on Pepper to help raise $10 million for an endowment. Cincinnati City Council last month approved giving $800,000 to the museum to help pay off $25 million in construction debt, and the museum is in line to also receive state funding.

An effort is under way to review placing a property tax levy on the ballot in the future that would provide money to several local institutions, including the Freedom Center.

The Freedom Center commemorates the safe houses and secret routes, known as the Underground Railroad, that slaves used on their way to northern free states in the 19th century. Many such stops are located throughout Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

For analysis and commentary on local politics, visit CityBeat's Porkopolis blog at blogs.citybeat.com/ porkopolis.

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