Sisyphus and the State

Sisyphus and the State

On the Front Lines of Union Organizing

In February 2002, workers at the Mt. Sinai-St. Francis nursing home in Miami, Florida, voted to form a union. In response, their employer filed objections with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming that the union had used voodoo to win the election in the largely Haitian shop. Union and community members declared the move racist, but no matter how ludicrous the charge, the NLRB was obligated to schedule hearings and take testimony on the matter. It wasn’t until May that the board issued its ruling, throwing the employer’s objections out. Mt. Sinai-St. Francis appealed the ruling, once again putting certification of the union on hold. The union mounted a high-profile campaign, bringing AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Rich Trumka (the nursing home turned the sprinklers on to keep workers away from him) and actor Danny Glover to Miami, and organized local clergy, community, and political leaders to pressure the company. Ten months after the vote, the company agreed to recognize the union.

Workers at the Santa Fe Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, were not so lucky. They won a union election in 1993 despite illegal firings and threats, only to watch their employer appeal the results for six years, stall in bargaining, and then finally sell the hotel and fire the workers.

In Seattle, Washington, workers at the flagship company of the “new economy,” Amazon.com, were met with distinctly “old economy” union-busting tactics when they began signing authorization cards to form a union in 2000. Two months later, in January 2001, Amazon laid off 1,300 workers, including the entire Seattle call center where the union drive was focused. The work was outsourced to India, while the workers were given the option to relocate to the company’s remaining domestic call centers in North Dakota and West Virginia. Today Amazon.com remains a “union-free” company.

Two generations passed before workers at Cannon Mills won union rights. The first organizing drive at the famous Kannapolis, North Carolina, textile mill took place in 1946, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) came to Kannapolis as part of its Operation Dixie effort to organize the South. Kannapolis was a mill town, where “Uncle Charlie” Cannon owned not just the factories, but the streets, the houses, the grocery stores.

Three decades later, when the first NLRB election was held at Cannon, Kannapolis was still a mill town. Company opposition did not stop when the town was incorporated, and the NLRB twice ordered a rerun of an election because of employer violations of the law. In 1999, after five elections that spanned a quarter century, workers at Cannon won the biggest union victory ever in a southern textile mill, a victory that many people had worked their whole lives to achieve. “When I first went to work, I was afraid,” Cynthia Hanes, a Cannon worker and union activist, told...