The preliminaries are over and what's certain to be one
of the fiercest political fights in many years is finally underway. It pits the
nation's labor unions and their Democratic allies against the pillars of
corporate America and their Republican allies.
The stakes are huge. A union victory would give U.S.
workers the unfettered right to unionization that would raise their economic
and political status substantially. But that would come at the expense of
employers, who have been able to block a large majority of them from exercising
the union rights that the law has long promised all workers.
The union-employer fight began in earnest on March 10
with the re-introduction in Congress of the long-proposed Employee Free Choice
Act. The bill would strengthen the National Labor Relations Act to make it
easier for workers to form and join unions, the 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 organize 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
they 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 delivered to workers one-on-one by
supervisors, frequently along with threats of disciplinary action if they
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 often not even imposed.
And 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
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. And employers almost invariably choose elections because of the
opportunity the election campaign gives them to pressure workers into opposing
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 120 days in contract negotiations with the
The act was originally introduced in 2003, but as long as
anti-union Republicans controlled Congress and the White House, it didn't stand
a chance. It made it through the House once, but was blocked from Senate
passage by a Republican filibuster.
Now, however, Democrats may very well have enough votes
to get it through the Senate. If they do, President Obama has promised to sign
the bill into law.
Hundreds of the bill's supporters and opponents rallied
on Capitol Hill the day of the measure's re-introduction to launch their
nationwide campaigns. Unions are hardly going it alone. They've been joined by
a broad coalition of allies from civil and human rights groups, religious
organizations and others.
As one supporter noted, they see the Free Choice Act as a
way to "renew workplace democracy, improve jobs, strengthen the economy
and rebuild America's middle class."
Other supporters also see it as a way to overcome the
current economic distress -- "a necessary part of broad economic recovery
... the best stimulus package we have ... a critical building block of the new
economy that we must construct from the ashes of the old."
Opponents of the Free Choice Act don't see it quite that
way. Their view is, in a word, bizarre.
Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the
proposed law "a mortal threat to American freedom." Former
Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney called it
Others in the ranks of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and
the many other corporate and business groups opposing the bill have described
it as "a Gestapo tactic" that would lead to "the demise of
civilization" ... a step on "the road to poverty" ... a
"pro-slavery bill," a threat to society on a par with "radical
The opponents have proposed a counter-measure, the Secret
Ballot Protection Act. It would require union recognition to be decided solely
by elections - and thus, of course, subject the process to employer
manipulation that would continue to deny millions of workers the basic right of
In any case, the labor-management battle that's just
beginning, says Chamber of Commerce Vice President Randel Johnson, will be
"a firestorm bordering on Armageddon."
Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister