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Congress Holds Hearings on Unions

June 20, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Where you stood on unions may have depended Thursday on where you stood on Capitol Hill.

At a Senate hearing, a Louisiana mariner told sympathetic Democrats about the harassment and threats he said workers faced from boat companies when they tried to unionize.

``It shouldn’t be this hard to form a union,″ said Eric Vizier of Galliano, La.

On the opposite side of the Capitol, a very different union tale was unfolding at another sympathetic hearing _ this time in front of House Republicans.

An Ohio school psychologist talked of being forced to join and subsidize a union that supports political issues she opposes, such as abortion rights.

``The union threatens to take my job away unless I violate my religious beliefs,″ said Kathleen Klamut, who works for Ravenna City Schools. ``The union claims it has the power to do this.″

The dueling congressional hearings illustrated election-year politics with both Republicans and Democrats playing to their supporters. The parties are vying for control of Congress in November’s elections.

At the Senate hearing, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney pressed Democratic allies to take on an overhaul of the nation’s labor laws.

``For the past 25 years, businesses have been twisting, manipulating and ignoring our country’s labor laws and getting away with it,″ he said. ``Even when they get caught, the penalties are so weak and the process so unfair that few, if any, are ever held accountable for their actions.″

It’s illegal for an employer to fire a worker for supporting a union organizing campaign. The punishment requires an employer to reinstate the worker with back pay _ minus earnings from a replacement job.

If an employer oversteps boundaries in mandatory group meetings or in one-on-one supervisory meetings, the penalty simply requires the employer to post a notice saying it violated the law and won’t do it again, said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who is facing a tough re-election campaign against Republican Norm Coleman.

Many companies now view such penalties ``as a routine cost of doing business, well worth it to get rid of organizing leaders and derail workers’ organizing efforts,″ Wellstone said.

Nancy Schweikhard, a nurse in Oxnard, Calif., told the committee that she and her co-workers were pulled away from patient care duties to attend mandatory anti-union meetings with hospital officials. The hospital also spent money on anti-union consultants instead of funding health care needs, she said.

``I do not believe that workers should have to climb mountains to choose a union,″ Schweikhard said. ``We should not have to fear for our jobs or our families.″

Over in the House, Republicans heard testimony claiming that unions illegally used dues money to fund political activities.

Landmark Legal Foundation President Mark Levin said the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, failed to accurately disclose to the IRS and the Labor Department thousands of dollars in dues money it has spent on politics since 1994.

Political spending included funds for candidate recruitment and screening, fund raising and political surveys, Levin said.

Bob Chanin, NEA general counsel, said no dues money has been contributed to candidates. However, he said, unions by law are allowed to spend dues money to communicate with their members, which includes informing them of political issues.

Republicans still objected to that. ``Citizens of this country cannot be forced to contribute to causes which violate their religious beliefs or with which they disagree for other reasons,″ said Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Georgia, chairman of the House Workforce Protections subcommittee. ``I continue to be frustrated by the failure of unions to honor these basic American principles.″

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