The Future’s In Our Hands
On the horizon: an expanded right to form unions
Volume CIX, No. 3March, 2009
TIME TO ORGANIZE: Above, the SEIU’s Theo Jackson before he speaks at a rally supporting the Employee Free Choice Act in February. Photo by Kate Thomas/SEIU via flickr.com
What time is it? Time to organize! And for the first time in a long time, the law could be on our side.
The Employee Free Choice Act (otherwise known as EFCA) is a critical piece of federal legislation that would put the choice of forming unions into the hands of workers.
Instead of the unfair system currently in place – which allows companies to dominate the election process and stonewall first contracts – it would allow workers the right to form a union by signing cards. If a majority of workers signed, the company would have to recognize their union.
Let’s say that musicians were being mistreated at a music school. Instead of having to launch an expensive and stressful union organizing campaign, musicians could simply indicate their desire for a union by signing cards. If a majority of musicians signed cards, Local 802 could begin the process of negotiating a first contract for these artists.
EFCA also contains a clause which would guarantee the right of mediation or binding arbitration, which would prevent long, drawn-out lawsuits.
The law would allow millions of workers the chance to form a union, and thus obtain employer-based health insurance and employer-based pensions.
To further understand the importance of EFCA, it is necessary to recognize the events throughout our nation’s history that created the circumstances that mandate its passage into law.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson stated that all men are endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
After the ratification of the Constitution, the only people who benefited from the latter two items were wealthy white men. (Blacks had no rights and were regarded as three-fifths of a person.)
They alone enjoyed the right to vote and own property.
They were responsible for governing and negotiating terms of trade and commerce.
They served as decision makers in all facets of life.
This strict, conservative and patriarchal system openly discriminated against poor white men and all women and people of color. Worker exploitation was commonplace.
Public outcry, effective organizing and enlightened lawmakers and Supreme Court justices eventually led to laws and rulings that sought to correct these gross inequities:
- The 13th Amendment (1865) abolished slavery.
- The 17th Amendment (1913) allowed voters to elect their U.S. senators directly, rather than having the state legislatures choose them.
- The 19th Amendment (1920) granted women the right to vote.
- The creation of the National Labor Relations Board (1934) meant that for the first time, a U.S. government agency was empowered to conduct elections for union representation and investigate and remedy unfair labor practices.
- Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) was the Supreme Court ruling that struck down the concept of “separate but equal,” ending segregation and paving the way for the civil rights movement.
- The Voting Rights Act (1965) ended discriminatory voting practices that had led to widespread disenfranchisement.
- The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (2009) gives workers more latitude to fight pay discrimination.
Despite these landmark victories, vestiges of the conservative and patriarchal system created over 230 years ago remain firmly in place today.
White males run 96.6 percent of the Fortune 500 companies. These execs make about $6,153 an hour on average.
Corporations wield tremendous influence over many politicians, often in the form of aggressive lobbying and large campaign contributions. (It goes without saying that illegal methods are also used. Remember Jack Abramoff?)
These corporations can easily affect how laws are written, or whether they get written at all.
In fact, 100 CEO’s of the biggest Fortune 500 companies gave $208,200 to John McCain’s campaign. Of course McCain is a staunch opponent of EFCA.
THE WAR IS ON
Too often, corporations categorize their employees into two groups: “assets” (upper management) and “resources” (otherwise known as the “workforce,” who are expendable and interchangeable).
To remain profitable, the cost of resources must be kept down.
Therefore, corporations tend to view comprehensive health benefits, guaranteed employer-based retirement security, government regulation, taxes, workers’ rights, unions and tort lawsuits as obstacles to profitability.
To that end, many corporations are stridently opposed to EFCA and have gone to great lengths to prevent its passage.
Last fall, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, with the assistance of Rick Berman, an aggressive EFCA opponent, led a conference call with conservative activists and business officials to organize opposition to EFCA.
Among those on the call were representatives from Bank of America and AIG, both of which received multi-billion dollar bailouts with taxpayer money.
All were urged to convince their clients to make large contributions to organizations working to defeat EFCA as well as to Senate Republicans, who could help kill it.
Opposition to EFCA is so strong that many anti-union groups have sprung up, masquerading as workers’ rights organizations. They harass lawmakers and lie to the public, seeking to maintain the status-quo in workplaces across the country. Two of these organizations are:
- “Coalition For A Democratic Workplace.” This group acts like a worker’s rights group but lists no workers as members on its Web site. There are, however, many anti-EFCA organizations listed, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Human Recourses and Ethics Services.
- “Center For Union Facts.” Led by the aforementioned Rick Berman, they use over-the-top advertising on TV, radio and in print. Their work is so controversial that many television stations refused to air their material.
MOVIN’ ON UP
Studies show that unions are the best way to grow the middle class.
- Union members make on average, 30 percent more than those in nonunion jobs.
- Furthermore, unionized workers are more likely to have employer-based health care, as well as employer-based pensions.
- Moreover, unionized employers also provide better health insurance, paying an 11.1 percent higher share of single-worker coverage and a 15.6 percent higher share of family coverage.
Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Insitute, estimates that in the U.S., the Employee Free Choice Act will lead to 3,537,625 more people with employer-based health insurance. This figure is based on a model suggesting that EFCA will increase union density by ten percentage points.
A FINAL NOTE
During the 50’s and 60’s, America’s economy grew at the fastest rate since World War II. It was also when the percentage of unionized workers in America was at its highest.
On the other hand, union membership had been spiraling downward for over a decade just before the Great Depression (not unlike today).
Tragically, at a time when home foreclosures are at a 30-year high, and 3.6 million jobs have been lost since December 2007 (598,000 jobs in January 2009 alone, bringing the national unemployment rate to 7.6 percent), there are corporations and their minions with no regard to common good and human dignity principles, maintaining that their only responsibilities are to themselves.
That is why it is critical that the Employee Free Choice Act become law.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
As I’ve stated many times here, get informed and get involved.
To counter the scurrilous lies and attacks from these phony pro-worker organizations, you must arm yourself with the one thing they don’t have on their side: the truth.
Please visit www.AmericanRightsAtWork.org and download the materials that reveal the opposition’s tactics and the facts needed to confront them.
Most importantly, however, please contact your members of Congress, urging them to support the Employee Free Choice Act.
The dignity, respect and future well-being of American workers and their right to safe, healthy, and ethical workplaces depends on it.
If you want to know who your Congressional representatives are, or if you want to get involved in any way, call my office at (212) 245-4802, ext. 176 or e-mail me at Pmolloy@Local802afm.org.