Terri Falbo, a union organizer, spoke to journalism students at West Chester University about what a union does for workers and how employers attempt to discourage their employees from forming a union. When college students graduate and get a job, they can be faced with the question of whether or not to join a union. As a union organizer, Falbo unites a group of workers and encourages them to form or join a union. A union protects the workersʼ salary, benefits and hours. Falbo compares having a union to a democracy. “I think there is a strong relationship between democracy, free press and unions,” Falbo said. “They all involve a balance in power.”
One of the main reasons an employer does not want a union is because of power. If a worker is not part of a union, an employer can change salary, vacation time and benefits whenever the employer wants. An employer can also fire an employee for no reason at all if there is no union. The only exceptions to this are cases of discrimination. Also, when there is a union, employers need to discuss any changes with the employees. They also need to take votes and compromise on these changes.
Employers no longer have complete power to change salaries or hours without notifying employees. Falbo went on to say that an employee “does not have free speech on a job.” Free speech only protects in the public sphere. “You can be fired for a bumper sticker on your car and itʼs perfectly legal,” Falbo said.
Employers have many tactics to keep employees from joining a union. Although it is illegal to treat an employee worse because he or she showed interest in a union, employers find ways around it. Employers hire union busters. These people teach employers words and phrases that can be used to intimidate employees, but cannot be found illegal. Part of Falboʼs job is to meet with employees beforehand and let them know the kinds of things employers will say and do to scare them. “If a person does not know ahead of time, the person will become scared because of the power difference,” Falbo said. Since the employer holds power over the employeeʼs financial future, that person might decide to oppose the union out of fear.
Falbo grew up in a small town, one that she describes of having a population of less than 1,000. The town consisted of coal miners, steel workers and railroad workers, all of which are in unions. However, Falbo “never thought about unions until college, which is pretty ironic,” she said. Falbo started college at the University of Pennsylvania and majored in bioengineering. She said she was excellent in math and science. “I always thought if you have a skill, you should use it to help people,” she said. Falbo worked in construction for 17 years. After a year at the University of Pennsylvania, Falbo took a year off, and then started at Temple University. She decided to study history, especially labor history. This is one of the reasons Falbo decided to be active in unions.
The other reason was her discovery of class issues. Falbo grew up during the civil rights and womenʼs movement. However, “I never really thought about issues of class,” she said. Falbo stated that there is “a onesided class war in this country.” The working class people have to work much harder for less in return.
“Before, a union job of 40 hours a week could support an entire family very well, with six weeks paid vacation, and good health care benefits,” Falbo said. Now, she said, a family needs 80 hours a week with, both parents working full-time. “If minimum wage kept up with inflation in the 1970s, the minimum wage today would be $15.00,” she said. However, there are many college graduates who are not making that much. “That is how far we are behind,” Falbo said.
When people insist that unions can only hurt workers, Falbo offers them a quote by Albert Einstein. He said, “I consider it important, indeed urgently necessary, for intellectual workers to get together, both to protect their own economic status and, also, generally speaking, to secure their influence in the political field.” Falbo said that it does not take an “Einstein” to recognize the benefits of having a union.