Over many years, I have developed an intimate relationship with the sweet, lager taste of Yuengling Black & Tan. After moving to the cutthroat world of Washington, D.C. politics, I found that Yuengling always comforted me with memories of my working class roots and the world of flannel hunting jackets, wedding receptions at union halls, 4th of July barbecues, and tailgate parties that represented my native Western Pennsylvania. I took pride in introducing my friends to this beauty of a beer—cheap, delicious, and made by union workers back home in Pennsylvania. Women had come and gone, dogs had died, but Yuengling had always been there for me – until now.
This past weekend when I discovered that Yuengling had illegally busted their union, I was emotionally devastated. I had just bought a case of Yuengling earlier that same day and had it sitting at home in the refrigerator waiting for me. What would I do? I was broke and couldn’t possibly afford to buy another case of beer, but at the same time I couldn’t possibly enjoy drinking a Yuengling knowing what they had done to their workers. So instead, I found myself at home, watching a baseball game on a Saturday night, and enjoying a nice, cold glass of milk as I struggled to deal with how Yuengling had betrayed not only its workers, but me.
Quickly I found my outrage shifting from beyond Yuengling to the lack of U.S. labor law protecting workers from such abusive, unfair practices. It turns out that the company had petitioned for a decertification election to kick the union out of the brewery when the contract of the union expired. Dick Yuengling, the owner of Yuengling Brewery, gathered all the workers and told them that “the writing was on the wall”. He said that if they didn’t vote to kick the union out, he would close the plant, and ship the work to a non-union facility in the South. The workers, scared of losing their job in a region with high unemployment, voted to ditch their union and save their jobs.
While threatening to close a plant if a union wins such an election is highly illegal, the Yuengling Company has been able to get away with due to the weakness of U.S. labor law. According to a study recently released by Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University, employers threaten to close facilities in 57% of union elections if workers choose a union, despite the fact that this threat is carried out only 2% of the time. This is because under U.S. labor law the penalty for threatening to close plants or firing workers during a union election is that the boss merely has to post a piece of paper saying they broke the law.
As one longtime union organizer once put it to me “If the penalty for robbing a bank was you had to post a piece of paper saying you robbed a bank, we’d all be bank robbers!”
Under current U.S. Labor Law, employers can freely violate the law without serious penalty. As a result, workers are fired from their job in 34% of union elections and companies illegally threaten to close a facility in 57% of all union elections. In this economy, losing one’s job is tantamount not just to losing more than just a job, but also to losing home to foreclosure and more gravely – one’s health insurance. As a result of the ability of bosses to freely intimidate with such Gestapo-style tactics, 58% percent of workers indicate they would like to join a union, but only 8% of private sector employees are members of one out of the fear of what their bosses might do to them for trying to join a union.
The Employee Free Choice Act would give U.S. labor law real teeth – leveling heavy fines against employees who unlawfully intimidate or threaten workers. The Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers to join unions free of intimidation a process of majority sign where workers merely would have to get 50% of their co-workers to sign a card to be part of a union.
Currently, The biggest obstacle to the passing the Employee Free Choice Act is quite ironically the very Senator who represents the workers at Yuengling Brewing – “Democrat” Arlen Specter. Quite ironically, Arlen Specter, who had in previous years voted for the Employee Free Choice Act, has fallen victim to the same type of corporate intimidation and flipped his position to being against the Employee Free Choice Act. Its time that Arlen Specter show solidarity with the 20,000 workers that are fired every year for attempting to join a union. Arlen Specter needs to vote for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would protect the rights of workers to freely join unions that the overwhelming majority of his constituents favor especially the once unionized workers of a once dear friend – Yuengling.
About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer and worked previously for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers (UE). He works currently as an editor at AlterNet.
This article originally appeared in AlterNet on June 17, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.