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Time To Check Those Union Cards


Millions of workers could be on the verge of finally gaining the unfettered right to unionization that has so long been denied them, despite its great importance to the economic well-being of all Americans.

 

Our economy is in trouble, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich notes, “largely because lower and middle-income workers no longer have the buying power they need to keep it going.”

 

Unionization is the obvious way to get that buying power and to meet the urgent need to expand the steadily shrinking middle class. Last year, for instance, union members earned fully 30 percent more than non-union workers – an average of $10,000 or $200 a week more – and had much better health, retirement and other benefits. As usual, they also had a much more effective voice in determining their working conditions and played a greater role in political affairs and community activities.

 

So why are only about 12 percent of the country’s workers in unions? That’s obvious, too: Many employers, aided and abetted by the anti-labor Bush administration, make union membership meaningless, if not impossible,  by illegally interfering in unionization drives. Even those relative few who recognize a union as their employees’ representative often refuse to bargain with the union and discipline  employees who protest.

 

The 73-year-old National Labor Relations Act, which was enacted as a way to encourage unionization during the dark economic time of the Great Depression, says employers can’t do that.  But the law has become feeble and so poorly enforced that it’s routinely violated.

 

There’s a remedy for that called the Employee Free Choice Act. It’s been before Congress for several years, only to be blocked by Republicans. But it’s been gaining important new support from organized labor’s Democratic allies.

 

In the meantime, many employers continue to openly intimidate those who support or attempt to organize unions. They order supervisors to spy on organizers and to threaten pro-union workers with firing or other penalties, for example, and order workers to attend meetings at which employers rail against unions.

 

The penalties for such employer violations of the Labor Relations Act are slight. Workers, at any rate, fear complaining because it usually takes the government a very long time to act, and they meanwhile risk being fired or otherwise disciplined. Fear of such illegal reprisals keeps at least 60 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.

 

The Employee Free Choice Act calls for much stiffer fines — up to $20,000 per violation — and, among several other provisions aimed at cracking down hard on offenders, it mandates that employers who stall in union contract negotiations will have the terms dictated by an arbitrator.

 

The key provision 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, as is now done in most cases. The law was like that originally, with no lengthy election campaigns and thus much less opportunity for employers to intimidate workers.

 

The proposed act came close to passage last year, clearing the House handily but failing to get the 60-vote majority needed to overcome a filibuster by Republican opponents in the Senate.

 

Chances seem better this year, with the AFL-CIO set to wage a major campaign that promises to be even more extensive than last year’s drive that failed because of a mere nine Senate votes.

 

The AFL-CIO aims to eventually mobilize at least one million members or 10 percent of each of its affiliates’ members for the campaign. Volunteers will be contacting Congress members via phone calls, letters, telegrams and emails and in person throughout the year, and campaigning for the election of those agreeing to support passage of the Free Choice Act next year – and against those who oppose the act. The labor federation expects that Congress in 2009 will have an even greater majority of pro-labor Democrats than now, and a pro-labor Democrat in the White House, all adhering to the Democratic National Committee’s pledge to make passage of the act a top priority.

 

Needless to say, Republican presidential candidate John McCain opposes the act, as do virtually all the other Republicans in Congress.

 

The AFL-CIO already has won endorsements from nearly 2,000 state and local office holders, some 20 governors and more than 100 state legislatures and local governing bodies.

 

But though the chances for enactment look good, the opposition is formidable. It includes many powerful corporate employers, the entire Republican establishment, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and such other stalwarts of the anti-labor right as the Heritage Foundation and National Right to Work Committee.

 

They’ve forgotten, if they ever knew – or cared – that, as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares, unionization is a basic, vital right of everyone, everywhere.

 

Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com

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