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Rite Aid Workers Fight for a Union

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Ahead of congressional debates on the Employee Free Choice Act, or EFCA, we take a look at a long struggle of over 600 Rite Aid workers in California to form a union. The workers are based in Lancaster, California, at the Southwest distribution center for the nation’s third largest drugstore. After a two-year struggle, a majority of Rite Aid workers at the site voted to join the International Longshore Workers Local 26. The story has gained national attention and focused attention in the fight over the Employee Free Choice Act. We speak with a Rite Aid worker and with Ken Silverstein about his article in Harper’s Magazine, “Labor’s Last Stand: The Corporate Campaign to Kill the Employee Free Choice Act.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahead of congressional debates on the Employee Free Choice Act, or EFCA, we turn now to the long struggle of over 600 Rite Aid workers in California to form a union. The workers are based in Lancaster, California, at the Southwest distribution center for the nation’s third largest drugstore. After two years of reported harassment, intimidation and firing of workers trying to organize a union, a majority of Rite Aid workers at the site voted to join the International Longshore Workers Local 26. For the past year, they have been trying to get a contract.

Today is the annual Rite Aid shareholders’ meeting in New York. Angel Warner, who works at the Lancaster Rite Aid distribution center and has been at the forefront of the unionizing efforts, is attending today’s meeting to represent the workers there.

We invited Rite Aid on the show. They declined our invitation. Cheryl Slavinsky, Rite Aid’s Director of Public Relations, denied reports of firing workers who were trying to form the union. She told Democracy Now! producers that Rite Aid has been, quote, “bargaining in good faith” and is, quote, “anxious to settle the contract and move on.” She added that Rite Aid is, quote, “the most unionized drug store chain in the nation.”

Well, Rite Aid worker Angel Warner joins me here in the firehouse studio. We’re also joined on the phone by Harper’s Magazine Washington editor Ken Silverstein.

Angel, talk about how your efforts at union organizing have been going in California and why you’re coming to the shareholders’ meeting.

ANGEL WARNER: Well, we started this over three years ago, and it took us two years just to even get to the vote to be able to be represented. And now it’s been over a year that we’ve been at the bargaining table. And it’s like the company is dragging their feet. They don’t want to bargain. They say they’re bargaining in good faith. And the most significant thing that’s been agreed on is where we’re going to hang our bulletin board.

When we started this organizing effort, we — you know, it’s hard work. And, you know, we like our jobs, and we have families and stuff, and we just want respect and dignity on the job. And, you know, they just don’t treat us that way. We’re told things — if we don’t like it here, McDonald’s is hiring. Or, “If you don’t like working here, there’s the door. A hundred people more are waiting in line for your job.” You know, and when they learned — so we decided that we wanted to start a union.

My friend Lorena Ortiz came up to me one day over three years ago and said, you know, “People are just really unhappy here, and we feel that our efforts speaking with management and trying to resolve issues is falling upon deaf ears, and we need representation.” So Lorena and I started researching, and we decided to call the Longshore — you know, International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union, the ILWU. And as soon as the company learned that we wanted to form a union, they started an anti-union campaign, a very abusive anti-union campaign, against us and my —- you know, all of us workers there. They hired consulting firms. They held captive audience meetings. We started -—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, they hired consulting firms?

ANGEL WARNER: Well, I call them union busting for — they’re union busters. The first one was J. Cole and Associates. After we won the vote, they’ve since hired another consulting firm, Bell and Associates, I believe, is the correct name.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you something. We put some questions to Rite Aid, though we’re sorry they wouldn’t come on to represent themselves here. We asked why Rite Aid hired a well-known anti-union consulting firm, your allegation, from Oliver J. Bell and Associates, the workers requesting they terminate the relationship. And Cheryl Slavinsky of Rite Aid said, “Oliver Bell & Associates is not an anti-union consulting firm. They’re a management consulting firm that conducted leadership training for all supervision at the Lancaster [distribution center] because our supervisors [there] had not previously managed in a union environment.”

ANGEL WARNER: Well, if that’s what they are, they sure have a funny way of showing it, because we’re still — you know, just up until recently, during this whole campaign, we’ve had several workers fired. We’ve been written up. You know, we’ve been harassed. We’ve been held to what’s called a “ProRep.” It’s a reduction rate standard, and we get speed-ups on it. People like me who have children, we get told at the last minute, you know, before we want to go home from work, that we’re going to be working overtime. You know, so we have to scurry to make arrangements for babysitters and childcare and things like that.

And this consulting firm that they say for management, the only thing that we’ve — you know, I can’t really comment on how they want to put their spin on it. We just know that when these firms are there, the more anti-union rhetoric shows up in new ways of coming down on the employees, begins to happen when they hire these firms.

AMY GOODMAN: If EFCA were passed, the Employee Free Choice Act, how would that affect your work?

ANGEL WARNER: Oh, if we had had the Employee Free Choice Act in place when they originally presented it, we would not have had to, for one thing, go two years to get our vote. We would not have had all the employees fired that have been fired in the process. We would have a contract by now. And we would have a voice in our workplace.

AMY GOODMAN: Rite Aid said, “We just think that it’s fair for them to vote by secret ballot, just as all of us vote by secret ballot for the elected officials who represent us.” What is your response to that?

ANGEL WARNER: As you see, it’s not a real good one. They keep contending that the Employee Free Choice Act will take away our right to a secret ballot vote. And that’s so wrong, because all it does is it puts the choice in the hands of the employees and not the employer. If the employees choose to have a secret ballot vote, we can elect to have a secret ballot vote. But if we choose to be recognized by card recognition, we can be recognized by card recognition. It just takes that choice out of the employer’s hands and puts it where it should be, in the employees’ hands.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine. His last article is “Labor’s Last Stand: The Corporate Campaign to Kill the Employee Free Choice Act.” Ken, what did you find?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, there is a massive corporate campaign underway, that’s been underway for some years, sort of originating in the Washington offices of Grover Norquist, who’s a conservative activist who’s been involved in all sorts of similar crusades, political crusades, on behalf of right-wing organizations leading these campaigns. And, you know, it’s not exactly flying under the radar screen, but given the scope of the campaign, it’s surprising how little attention it’s received, because, I mean, I look at it, and I see something that is not quite as big as NAFTA, perhaps, but it’s the same sort of unanimous hostility on the part of the corporate community. I mean, this is an issue which brings business together, unlike virtually anything since, you know, something like NAFTA or permanent free trade relations for China. They all are united in the mission of defeating this bill, because they don’t want it any easier to organize. I mean, I’ve seen materials they’ve produced in which they, you know, are virtually uncorking the champagne along with the charts showing the decline of union membership in the United States.

And when I listen to the Rite Aid worker talking, it’s exactly as I discuss in the piece. I mean, these companies — basically it’s become almost impossible to unionize in this country. That’s going a little bit too far, but not by much. It’s an extremely difficult environment. If you actually manage to get to an election and win an election, then the company will just stall you out. And they see it — I mean, I think a lot of companies see fighting unions and refusing to recognize unions and then refusing to negotiate a contract as simply a cost of doing business. It’s cheaper for them to stall it out and to hire these union busting firms, even if they pay — charge a thousand dollars an hour. They see it as preferable to allowing a union on their premises. It’s about wages and benefits and control, and they want the control.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what is happening now in Congress. I thought it was very interesting that you point out that if the Obama administration were making this more of an issue, it might lead to a number of defections not having happened. Talk about who’s shifting positions. Talk about Senator Specter, Senator Lincoln from Arkansas, etc.

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Well, the corporate campaign identified a number of absolutely vital, key senators who they felt that they had to win over to either come out — they wanted them to either come out actively against this legislation, Employee Free Choice, or they wanted them to promise to not vote to break a filibuster, to keep it from getting to the floor. And so, there were about five or ten of them.

Specter was absolutely key. Specter supported Employee Free Choice in the past, in the past. He was a big supporter of Employee Free Choice, because even as a Republican — of course, now he’s a Democrat — but even as a Republican, he got a lot of support from labor. I mean, they backed him in his campaigns. And labor, although labor, I think doesn’t like to talk about this — there was an agreement, you know, that maybe wasn’t written down, but it was well understood that there had been a negotiated agreement that if Specter would come out again in support of card checks, that the unions would once again endorse him as a Republican and give him a lot of campaign support and go door to door and work very hard to get him reelected, because he’s in an extremely tight race against a — or he was — against a right-wing Republican. So Specter was a key vote, though, for the corporate side, because he was, at the time — he’s now a Democrat, of course — but he was the only Republican who was thought likely to come out and support EFCA. And the unions thought if they could get Specter, that they might be able to get the senators in Maine to come along as well, the more — Susan Collins, and I apologize to the senator; I am blanking on the name of the second senator. It’s very early.

AMY GOODMAN: Olympia Snowe.

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Thank you. So they were trying to — you know, and there had been a couple of — like on the budget. After Specter came out, Snowe and Collins then went along and voted for the Obama budget. So there was a precedent. And they really desperately — both sides desperately wanted Specter. And Specter, of course, announces that he is going to — you know, at first he comes out against it, the bill. Then he says he’s no longer going to be a Republican, because he realized he couldn’t win the Republican primary. And then he says, “But I still won’t support EFCA.” So, right now, without —-

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, we only have twenty seconds, but the major corporations fighting EFCA now?

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Oh, well, I mean, it’s -— Wal-Mart is absolutely at the forefront, but it’s also a lot of these trade associations, like the retailers and the hotel associations. And then there are a lot of nonprofit organizations that really operate under the radar screen, don’t disclose their expenditures or where they’re getting their money from.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, we’re going to have to leave it there. Ken Silverstein, “Labor’s Last Stand,” and Angel Warner of Rite Aid, thank you so much.

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