Few laws should be more important for the health of our economy and the well-being of ordinary Americans than the 69-year-old National Labor Relations Act, which promises working people the unfettered right to unionization. The law, however, has grown so feeble and is so poorly enforced that millions are being denied that fundamental right.


Which is why organized labor and its Democratic allies are waging a major campaign for a bill – the Employee Free Choice Act – that would carry out the law’s long-neglected promise. The House approved the measure 241-185 on March 1. But though the slim Democratic majority in the Senate is also certain to support it, Republicans are threatening a filibuster that could block passage. Even if the measure should squeak through Congress, President Bush is very likely to veto it.


Nevertheless, the groundwork will have been laid for enactment in 2008 if, as labor anticipates, Democrats retain control of Congress and Bush is succeeded by a Democrat.


The great need to reform the Labor Relations Act should be obvious – except to those on the Bush side of the labor-management divide who don’t relish sharing more of their profits and control of the workplace with those who do the actual work.


As both sides are well aware, the lack of firm legal rights is the main reason only about 12 percent of U.S. workers belong to unions. They know, too, that union members do much better than non-members. They’re paid an average of 30 percent more and have health insurance, pensions, paid holidays and vacations and other fringe benefits that most non-members lack, have an effective voice in determining their working conditions and play a greater role in political affairs and community activities.


It’s no wonder that thousands of employers routinely intimidate those who support or attempt to organize unions. They commonly use such tactics as ordering supervisors to spy on organizers and to threaten pro-union workers with firing, demotion or other penalties, despite the law. They order workers to attend meetings at which  employers  rail against unions and falsely claim that unionization will force workers to pay exorbitant dues and lead to pay cuts and layoffs or even force the employers  out of business. They hire high-priced “union avoidance” consultants to help them with their dirty work.


Employers have little reason to fear government action. The penalties for the employer violations are slight, at most small fines or small back-pay settlements for workers who are wrongly fired. Workers, at any rate, fear complaining about violations because it usually takes months — if not years

- for the government to act, and they meanwhile risk being fired or otherwise disciplined.


Studies by government, academic and union researchers show that fear of such illegal reprisal keeps at least 40 million workers who want to unionize from even trying. Every year, more than 60,000 of those who nevertheless do try are punished, half of them fired.


In nearly a third of the relatively rare instances in which workers are able to vote for union representation in the elections currently required by the Labor Relations Act, the employers refuse to agree to a contract with the winning union. Workers who strike to try to force them to reach an agreement or otherwise follow the law may be permanently replaced.


The proposed Employee Free Choice Act calls for much stiffer fines, swiftly imposed, and other penalties on employers who so openly violate the Labor Relations Act, and further revisions that would return the law to its stated purpose of encouraging unionization, and in doing so, expand and stabilize the middle class. 


The key to that is a provision which would automatically grant union recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an employer’s workers, rather than holding an election. The law was like that originally, with no lengthy election campaigns and thus much less opportunity for employers to intimidate workers.


Employers would be put on notice: Stall in negotiations on a contract agreement with workers who choose unionization, and the terms will be determined in mediation or dictated by an arbitrator.


Oh, but using card checks would be a violation of basic democratic principles, say such anti-labor stalwarts as Vice President Dick Cheney, who fail to note, while shedding their crocodile tears, that union representation elections are in themselves violations of those principles.


Employers openly break laws governing election campaigning, electioneer among voters at their workplaces any time they wish while prohibiting organizers from entering the premises or even posting pro-union material, and require voters to attend pre-election meetings at which only the employer’s side is presented.  And employers who lose elections can delay recognizing the results for years. What’s more, the voting is held on the employers’ property, with voters escorted to the polls by employer representatives.


Could there be a more blatant violation of the essential economic and civil right of unionization?


Copyright (c) 2007 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist who has covered labor issues for more than four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.



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