Now that the electioneering and political posturing is done with, it's time for President Obama and congressional Democrats to finally deliver on their promises to enact the long delayed Employee Free Choice Act that's at the very top of organized labor's political agenda.
EFCA, as it's sometimes called, has been stalled in Congress for three years. It would give U.S. workers the unfettered right to unionization that would raise their economic and political status considerably. But that would come at the expense of employers, who have been able to block a large majority of workers from exercising the union rights that labor law has long promised workers.
EFCA would in essence strengthen the 78-year-old National Labor Relations Act – the NLRA – to make it easier for workers to form and join unions. Which is the clearly stated purpose of the NLRA.
The lack of solid legal protection is a primary reason that, despite the higher pay and benefits and other obvious advantages of union membership, only about 12 percent of the country's workers belong to unions.
Surveys show that nearly one-third of all U.S. workers want to unionize but won't try because they fear employer retaliation – and for good reason. Every year, thousands of workers who do try to unionize are illegally fired or otherwise penalized.
Employers faced with organizing campaigns commonly order supervisors to spy on organizers and force workers to attend meetings at which employers describe unions as dues-snatching outsiders, often asserting falsely that unionization will lead to pay cuts, layoffs, outsourcing of work or even force them out of business. Similar messages are delivered to workers one-on-one by supervisors, frequently along with threats of disciplinary action if they support unionization.
In many of the instances in which workers nevertheless vote for unionization, the employer simply refuses to agree to a contract with the union. Workers who strike to try to force employers to reach an agreement or otherwise follow the law face being permanently replaced.
The NLRA is supposed to protect workers from such actions. But employers have been able to blatantly violate the law because the penalties are slight – usually small fines at most, and they're often not even imposed. Workers fear complaining to the government, knowing it usually takes months – if not years – for the government to act, and that meanwhile they may lose their jobs.
The most important provision of the Employee Free Choice Act would automatically grant union recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an employer's workers – unless the workers opted to have recognition decided by an election.
As the law now stands, only employers can decide whether to use a membership card check or an election to determine their workers' wishes. Employers almost invariably choose elections because of the opportunity the election campaign gives them to pressure workers into opposing unionization.
Other key provisions of the Free Choice Act would fine employers up to $20,000 for each violation of the law and call for arbitrators to dictate the terms of employers' contracts with unions winning recognition if the employers stalled for more than four months in contract negotiations with the winners.
The act made it through the House shortly after it was originally introduced in 2003, but was blocked from Senate passage by a Republican filibuster. It seems unlikely that the bill would even get through the House now.
Labor, however, has not backed off, and can still expect the support of President Obama, other key Democrats and civil and human rights groups, religious organizations and other influential union allies to back its demand for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act or something very much like it.
But are labor's political allies willing – and able – to finally do what they have long promised to do? Are they willing – and able – to join labor in assuring American workers the firm union rights that have too long been denied them?
Dick Meister is a San Francisco columnist who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.