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Ex-Congressman Bonior Turns to Labor Rights

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

David Bonior has lived many lives--military man, probation officer, adoption case worker and, for 26 years, member of the US House of Representatives. Now he's the chair of American Rights at Work. It's a new non-profit championing workers who want to unionize and challenging those, including Wal-Mart, that it says prevent union activity.

David Bonior, welcome.

Mr. DAVID BONIOR (Chairman, American Rights at Work): Thank you. Nice to be with you today, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Tell me a little bit more about this organization, particularly given that you served Michigan, which is known as a real blue-collar state, a state with a lot of workers who are unionized or who are in jobs that would be unionized.

Mr. BONIOR: Well, American Rights at Work is a leading labor policy and advocacy organization. And we formed about two and a half years ago, and our job is to fight for, to recognize the right of workers to organize and to collectively bargain in our society today, a right, by the way, which has been taken away and which has been diminished considerably, particularly over the last 25 years. We believe the right to associate is a fundamental human right. If you don't have the right to associate at the place you spend the most time during the day, which is your workplace, that is a very fundamental problem, then, with the democratic principles in our society. The first thing a dictator will do is get rid of the right to associate. And that's what's happening in this country. The right to associate is being challenged in a way that you can't imagine. Twenty-three thousand workers in America today are fired or disciplined each year for trying to organize at their workplace. And we want to tell those stories, expose that problem and try to create a more positive relationship between employees and employers.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of a positive relationship, you have just come up with this list, Partnerships That Work. It's about companies that are profitable, where you seem to have an alliance between workers and employers. Does this really come out of a desire to counter sometimes the perception that labor complains and complains and pickets and marches and protests but doesn't really point out when things work?

Mr. BONIOR: Well, it's an attempt to show that there's another and a better model than this model that we have now, which is a race to the bottom. And that model basically rests upon the principle, the race-to-the-bottom idea that, you know, you can't make it today unless you cut wages, fire workers, get rid of benefits, take away their right to organize and collectively bargain. We can't compete, some say, in the globalized world unless we do these things. And we think there is a better model, and there are companies out there who are doing it and doing it extraordinarily well. And they have a partnership with their employee organizations and unions, and we think these models are out there. They're not talked about enough and we've come up with our Labor Day list that will be published each Labor Day to really praise, in this case, nine employers and their partners who do an extraordinary job providing wages and benefits and also having a good bottom line for their management and for their stockholders.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about one of the companies on your list, Costco. It has often been compared to another major retailer, Wal-Mart, which has a very different set of labor practices regarding unions. Tell us more about your organization's profiling of Costco and also some of the things that you, as an organization, have been doing around Wal-Mart.

Mr. BONIOR: What I want to do is contrast, really, Costco with Sam's Club, which is Wal-Mart's counterpart. There is a huge difference. First of all, as we all know, Wal-Mart does everything they can to prohibit workers from joining a union. And Costco has the opposite concept. They provide opportunities--if you want to join a union, they provide sustainable wages and progressive increases and worker-friendly benefits. They pay about $15 an hour, compared to maybe Sam's Club, which is around $9, maybe, $10 an hour. And as a result of this, they have a huge retention advantage over Wal-Mart.

CHIDEYA: Twenty-six years in Congress--should the federal government play a more active role in dealing with what you see as the obstruction of unions in America today? There's obviously some states that are right-to-work states, some states that are much more apt to create an environment in which unions flourish. What in your opinion should the federal government be doing?

Mr. BONIOR: The federal government should be enforcing the 1935 Labor Relations Act, the so-called--the Wagner Act, as it was named in 1935. And the Wagner Act is really very, very basic, and it says that employees or workers have a right, a right under our Constitution, to form unions, and to do that in a way that is not impeded. Now that's in law today.

CHIDEYA: Well, David Bonior, you're chair of American Rights at Work. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BONIOR: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: For a complete list of corporate trailblazers as selected by the American Rights at Work group, log on to our Web site at npr.org and go to the NEWS & NOTES page.

That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Farai Chideya
Farai Chideya is a multimedia journalist who has worked in print, television, online, and radio. Prior to joining NPR's News & Notes, Chideya hosted Your Call, a daily news and cultural call-in show on San Francisco's KALW 91.7 FM. Chideya has also been a correspondent for ABC News, anchored the prime time program Pure Oxygen on the Oxygen women's channel, and contributed commentaries to CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and BET. She got her start as a researcher and reporter at Newsweek magazine. In 1997 Newsweek named her to its "Century Club" of 100 people to watch.
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