Labor - And A Whole Lot More

A New Deal For American Workers
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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 support unionization.

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 their jobs.

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 unionization.

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 winners.

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 "calamitous."

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 Islam."

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 unionization.

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