The Senate began debate on the Employee Free Choice Act this week, with a cloture vote expected any time. Unlike in the House, where the bill passed with a wide margin in March, the Senate fight will be tough. That's why this column is a call to action: Please take a moment to e-mail your senators and urge them to vote for the Employee Free Choice Act (S.1041) -- and if you have a blog or other outlet, getting out the word in the next couple of days is critical.
Current labor laws make it extremely difficult for America's workers to form unions without harassment and intimidation from their employers. Many employers want it both ways -- workers who produce a lot but who are not paid enough for what they do. The union difference makes a big difference: When comparing wages alone, union workers on average make 30 percent more -- that's a median weekly wage of $833 for a union worker compared with $642 for a full-time nonunion worker in 2006. (The full picture of the union difference is here.)
Improving the wages and working conditions of workers -- and in the process, salvaging our shrinking middle class -- is a big reason why we in the union movement have fought for the Employee Free Choice Act. The act would give workers more options in forming unions and level the playing field that's now tilted largely toward the boss.
The ability to form unions corresponds with higher pay for workers. In states that have laws restricting workers' rights to form strong unions, many of which are in the South, the average pay for all workers is lower. States with these so-called "right to work" for less laws limit workers' rights to collectively bargain contracts (including wages and benefits). In 2004, average pay in so-called "right to work" states was 14.4 percent lower than in states where workers have the freedom to form strong unions. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia all have these anti-worker laws on the books.
Some 60 million workers say they would join a union if they could -- but our labor laws, dating back to the 1930s, are skewed in favor of corporate giants who spend big bucks to harass and intimidate workers. And it works -- after all, how many people want to lose their jobs? (Although it’s illegal to fire workers for forming unions, management does it anyway, counting on the fact that it often takes years for a worker's appeal to wind its way through the regional and national labor boards and even the courts.)
But right now, we're up against lawmakers like Sen. Norm Coleman in Minnesota, who oppose the Employee Free Choice Act. In opposing the Employee Free Choice Act, Coleman and his cohorts might as well be saying they don't care about saving America's middle class. Unions were a key reason why the post-World War II generation saw an upsurge in home ownership, a guaranteed retirement security -- everything we took for granted as part of the nation's middle-class lifestyle. Took for granted, that is, until recent years, when the ranks of the middle class started thinning.
Earlier this month, union members met up with Coleman as he headed for a speaking engagement at the University of Minnesota campus. When workers asked him to support the Employee Free Choice Act, the senator said he could not back the proposed law. (Check out video of the encounter here.)
In his exchange with union members, Coleman repeated the incorrect canard that:
This act takes away the right to a secret ballot.
Wrong. The Employee Free Choice Act does not take away the ballot-election process (which all-too often is controlled by the employer). The act would add another option, the majority sign-up process, in which workers seeking to form a union could sign cards indicating their desire to do so. Majority sign-up is much faster than the government-run balloting process and leaves less time for employers to harass and intimidate workers so they will back off from joining a union.
Here's why U.S. workers need the Employee Free Choice Act.
The freedom to form unions is a workplace rights issue. Ninety-two percent of private-sector employers, when faced with employees who want to join together in a union, force employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda; 80 percent require supervisors to attend training sessions on attacking unions; and 78 percent require that supervisors deliver anti-union messages to workers they oversee. (More stats here.)
* The freedom to form unions is a human rights issue. In the 1950s, workers who suffered reprisals for exercising the right to freedom of association numbered in the hundreds each year. In 1969, the number was more than 6,000. By the early 2000s, some 20,000 workers each year (pdf) suffered a reprisal serious enough for the National Labor Relations Board to issue a "back pay" or other remedial order, according to Lance Compa, a senior lecturer at Cornell University and author of the 2000 Human Rights Watch report Unfair Advantage: Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards.
* The freedom to form unions is a civil rights issue. As AFL-CIO executive. Last month, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights issued a report illustrating the connection between the freedom to form unions and civil rights. Quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the report states that
today, the labor and civil rights movements confront another shared crisis—the systematic, often brutal denial of the right of American workers "to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively…and to engage in other concerted activities…."
* The freedom to form unions is a take-back-our-nation-from-corporate-thugs issue. Union-
busting is a multi-million dollar business, and some employers who refuse to bump up workers' wages by a few cents or a few dollars are more than willing to shell out big bucks to bring in so-called "union avoidance" firms. Chirag Mehta and Nik Theodore at the Center for Urban Economic Development share an example that illustrates how quickly support for unionization can erode when a management consultant is involved:
As soon as the employer found out the union was involved, they flew in their consultants. They had the consultant working in the nursing home for five straight weeks. We had 35 workers out of 43 who signed cards when we filed for an election. In the last week before the election, we had only 28 workers. Then, on the Monday night before the election, we had a meeting and no one showed up. We lost the election two days later by a landslide, 29 to 12.
* The freedom to form unions is an economic issue, a matter of restoring our nation's priorities, the foundation of which is strengthening America's middle class.
The freedom to form unions is an issue we all need to care about because it's one of the most critical issues for the future of our nation.Thanks for anything you do -- whether send an e-mail to your senators, post to a blog, or talk to your co-workers -- in support of passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
Tula Connell is the managing editor at the AFL-CIO.