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What a Card

Specter tries to save his own job by hurting workers

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Times are tough all over, but Roy Pringle has bigger problems than many of us. After three years of working as a custodian for the Carnegie Science Center, the 24-year-old makes $7.85 an hour. Roy also has asthma, but no health insurance to pay for his inhalers.

"We get paid horribly, and we need more money now," Pringle says.

But hey, at least Pringle never had to choose between two different sets of campaign contributors. That is the sad plight of Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who has job-security problems too. Specter is up for re-election in 2010, and so he has to appease his party's rabid conservative base. Not coincidentally, Specter just made it a lot harder for Pringle to get his raise.

Just across the river from the Science Center, janitors in Downtown office buildings make almost twice what Pringle earns, plus benefits. "Those are people doing the same job we do," Pringle says. The difference is that Downtown janitors are unionized. So in early December, 10 Science Center janitors-- the entire custodial staff -- signed cards indicating they wanted to join a union too.

They've been in limbo ever since.

Federal law allows employers to demand an election before workers can unionize -- even if a majority of them have already signed cards supporting the idea. The Science Center has required such a vote, which has been scheduled for April 17 -- more than five months after the workers unanimously supported the idea.

Such delays are common, and companies often use the time to browbeat employees into backing off. That's why unions have sought passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. Under EFCA, once a majority of employees sign union cards, they could unionize automatically, without an election.

Specter, an allegedly moderate Republican with support from labor and business alike, has been lobbied intensely on the issue. "[I]t is very hard to disappoint many friends who have supported me over the years on either side," he said in a March 24 Senate speech. But he counted himself among "a small group [of legislators who] reject ideological dogmatism ... and make an independent judgment." Having patted himself on the back enough to ruin his legendary squash game forever, Specter announced he opposed the bill.

"It is an anguishing position," he added.

Actually, Senator, an "anguishing position" would be a job without health insurance. Just ask Pringle's coworkers.

If you've already waited years for those benefits, another few months may not seem too bad -- unless you get sick. But custodians at the Carnegie museums in Oakland are already unionized, and the Science Center won't say why it demanded an election. Spokesperson Mike Marcus said the Center would not comment on a personnel matter. Sadly, no one else seems interested in talking about it, either. Science Center custodians held a little-noted protest days before Specter's speech. But their plight has generated much less media coverage than, say, the front-page interest in a March 30 anti-EFCA rally attended by "Joe the Plumber," the Paris Hilton of politics.

And going five months without health benefits is almost a best-case scenario. Pringle says the Science Center hasn't threatened anyone for supporting the union. Other workers aren't so lucky: As Specter noted in his speech, "employees have complained about ... threats of being fired and other strong-arm tactics."

Specter also alleged that there was "widespread intimidation on both sides," with union officials visiting "workers' homes ... and refus[ing] to leave until cards are signed." But actually, employers are far more likely than unions to engage in bullying. According to the National Labor Relations Board, in 2007 there were 1,099 formal complaints processed by its general counsel. Nearly 90 percent of those were filed against employers, rather than against union members getting tough. ("Nice family you got here ... be a shame if your boss had to pay for their insurance.") It's illegal to fire workers for supporting a union, but employers face little punishment beyond shelling out back-pay.

Specter does, at least, favor increasing penalties for such abuses. He'd also reduce the waiting period for an election to a couple weeks. Had even these modest reforms been enacted last year, Roy Pringle could have had a union by Christmas.

It'll be interesting to how hard Specter pushes these reforms now. I get the feeling the only job he really cares about is his own.

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