Workers Push for Right to Choose

Card Check Bill is in the Works

Volume CIV, No. 1January, 2004

Workers and their allies joined lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13 to announce the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would enable U.S. workers to join unions and negotiate first contracts without employer harassment. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) are co-sponsoring the new law.

Right now, workers have to overcome two major hurdles when they want to organize. The first is winning union representation; the second is winning a first contract. The new law would help with both fights.

Under the proposed legislation, if a majority of workers signed union cards indicating they wanted a union, they would automatically be certified. This is the protocol in most industrialized nations, including Canada.

The alternative – which exists in the U.S. – is that when workers want a union, they have to petition the National Labor Relations Board for an election. The problem is that employers can then intimidate workers, even illegally firing them, to thwart the union effort.

Local 802 went to the NLRB twice this year, to file for elections in two different organizations – the Kaufman Center and the Metropolitan Opera Guild. In each case, workers won representation, but the process took many months to accomplish. An automatic “card check” – like the kind in the new legislation – would have meant instant certification, since a majority of musicians had signed union representation cards.

Another way the new bill would help unions is that it would enable workers or management to ask for mediation if they haven’t settled a first contract after 90 days. It took almost a year for 802 to win its first contract with the Kaufman Center. Some unions never even win a first contract even after they’ve won the right to represent workers.

The law would also establish stronger penalties if employers used illegal tactics during union or contract drives.

When workers seek to join unions, 90 percent of private employers oppose their efforts, according to Cornell researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner. Some employers harass workers. Others threaten to close plants. And 25 percent illegally fire workers seeking to join a union.

Two years ago at the University of Pennsylvania, the majority of graduate employees signed union authorization cards with the American Federation of Teachers because they wanted a voice on the job. But administrators refused to honor the workers’ desires and ran an anti-union campaign leading up to a union election in February. Because of the university’s appeals and delays, the ballots have not yet been counted.

“Had Penn honored our card-check, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Joanna Kempner, a sociology graduate student active with the effort to form a union with AFT. “Current labor law is not strong enough to protect our freedoms,” Kempner said at a news conference.

The Employee Free Choice Act is part of the AFL-CIO’s “Voice at Work” campaign to restore workers’ freedom to form unions. The AFL is asking union members and their allies to urge their senators and representatives to co-sponsor the act.

The bill’s launch was timed to coincide with another important labor event. On Dec. 10, union members around the country marked International Human Rights Day. The events commemorated the anniversary of the ratification of the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteeing, among other human rights, the freedom of workers in every nation to come together into unions and bargain collectively.

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Some material for this story came from the Web site of the AFL-CIO.