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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
say, Republican presidential candidate John McCain opposes the act, as do
virtually all the other Republicans in Congress.
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
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.
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.
(c) 2008 Dick Meister