Protection from whom?

The Employee Free Choice Act

April 06, 2009|By Janet Gilbert

I'd like to validate my position against the Employee Free Choice Act. Unfortunately, I've read its text on the Library of Congress Web site six times today, making this a rather unproductive, six-nap afternoon. Opponents say this bill puts a crimp in the "secret" aspect of secret ballots by requiring employees to sign a card in front of a union organizer. Proponents argue that employees have the right to call for a secret ballot election after union interest is demonstrated.

Both sides are convincing, but my gut is telling me to go with my experience, based on a Sopranos episode I lived as a college student working part-time at a grocery store in New Jersey in 1980.

I needed extra cash to pay for my long-distance phone calls to my boyfriend, so I applied for work as a cashier. After a week or so, I was moved to the deli, where I learned to serve customers while my manager sat on a stool reading stories about half-human, half-goat babies aloud from her favorite tabloid. I went home exhausted, smelling of salami and dreaming of alien symbols mowed inexplicably into Iowa cornfields.

My first night, the butcher emerged from the back room to welcome me. He was a beefy guy with an easy grin; I liked him immediately. He asked me if I had joined the union. I said I hadn't given much thought to it because I was just a part-timer. He gave me a card with some information and said I really should think about it, and I promised I would.

I fully intended to join. I had read about the historical plight of workers and I believed in safeguarding their rights - my rights! - through union membership. That is, until I saw the price tag of the union dues.

The second of five children, attending a state university on the full scholarship awarded by my parents, I had a new appreciation for hard-earned money from my deli job. So when the butcher came back to the counter the next night to ask if I had decided to join, I told him I hardly expected to make the amount of the dues over a month's time. I told him all about my hefty phone bill.

He deftly steered the conversation to the fact that the dues would be deducted a little bit at a time. He said he'd come by next week to discuss this again. I said he didn't have to - my mind was made up.

The next time the butcher stopped by, he cut to the chase. I noticed his furrowed eyebrows. Or, more accurately, eyebrow.

"Hey Janet," he said. "Sign up for the union yet?"

I took this for the same kind of friendly banter I'd experienced at college, so I smart-alecked back, "Well, you let me know when the union's having a meeting, and I'll bring the head cheese."

"I'm not kidding," he said. That kidder, I thought.

Then, after closing one night my second week, I walked to my lonely car in the parking lot and was surprised to see the butcher waiting there.

"Maybe you don't understand, Janet," he said. "You don't join the union, you don't have a job. Have a good night." He left.

Maybe it was the hour, maybe it was because we were alone, maybe it was the fact that he knew his way around knives and was still wearing his bloody apron - I was terrified. I said, "OK," got in my car and sped home to my apartment.

I joined the International Meat Cutters Union the next day. And this is the first time my brief membership has served me at all: to make a point. In America, we should all be free to join or not join whatever organization we wish to join or not join.

I'm sure there are people out there who have been threatened with job loss for joining or organizing a union. It's too bad that a smart girl like me can't quite figure out if the Employee Free Choice Act protects us all.

We should not be intimidated by guys in bloody aprons - or by bloodsuckers in power suits, either.

Janet Gilbert, a freelance writer, lives in Woodstock. Visit her at

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