Mr. President, What About My Voice?

This op-ed column was originally published at

By Mari Gusman

I work at a nursing home in Wittenberg, Wisconsin. It’s a small town that’s about an hour outside of Green Bay—and a world away from Washington, DC, where President Obama will this week host a White House summit on labor unions in the workplace.

The president is correct when he says that employees need a voice at work. Labor unions claim to provide that voice, but it’s been my personal experience that union bosses often represent their own interests rather than employees’.

My facility’s employees were unionized over 20 years ago, long before any of my colleagues or I started working there—we didn’t even vote for the union. The union might have been effective at one point, but those days are long past.

For instance, the small raises that the union negotiated for us were paired with an increase in monthly dues, so we felt like we weren’t getting a raise at all.  When we complained to the union, their response was almost always the same: “It’s better than nothing.” Eventually, my coworkers and I were fed up, so I gathered petition signatures in order to hold an election to remove our union.

Then, everything went sideways. The union misled me into thinking that I needed to send the signed petitions to them in order for our election to go forward. This was a lie. The signatures were supposed to remain private, and be sent directly to the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). My union “representatives” had deceived me.

All of a sudden, my coworkers who had signed on to remove the union received “house calls” from union organizers sent from Madison. The union also publicly insulted me in a letter sent to all of my co-workers. We were repeatedly bullied and harassed—the union even threatened to strip us of our jobs—and when the time came to vote on removal, the union’s intimidation techniques paid off.

I’m not anti-union, but I am opposed to bad unions that are more interested in collecting money from my paycheck than standing up for my rights in the workplace.

Thanks to Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) and recent changes in Wisconsin labor law, I’m no longer forced to pay dues to an ineffective union. But that protection only applies in Wisconsin and other states with similar laws—not nationwide. That’s why I support the Employee Rights Act (ERA), a proposed national law that would provide greater on-the-job rights to employees and union members, rather than subject us to the whims of union bosses. Our country needs these reforms, not just Wisconsin.

The ERA guarantees a periodic vote to ensure every employee still approves of the union—it won’t just sit there for decades as the workplace and employees change. And the ERA would also protect my coworkers and me from the kinds of bullying and harassment we suffered during our decertification campaign.

If this week’s summit focuses on union rights rather than employee rights, it will be a missed opportunity. Employees do need a voice in the workplace, but the President is fooling himself if he thinks that union bosses will help provide it.

Mari Gusman is a caretaker for the elderly in Wittenberg, Wisconsin.