Why Can’t Workers Have a Free Choice?
By Bernie Horn
June 2, 2009 - 12:45pm ET
More than 70 years ago during the height of the Great Depression, my father, a machinist, organized his factory into a union. Why can’t Americans do the same today? Why is it that more than half of workers want to join a union, but less than 8 percent of private-sector employees are union members today? Because employers have turned the union-recognition election process into a burlesque of legal and illegal intimidation.
This morning at the America’s Future Now conference, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, former congressman David Bonior who is chairman of American Rights at Work, Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, and Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, laid out the case.
While 60 million American workers would join a union if they could, current federal law makes it nearly impossible. Under the current system for recognizing unions, one side—the corporation—has all the power: it controls the information workers receive and routinely poisons the process by intimidating, harassing, coercing, and even firing people who try to organize unions. The system bears no resemblance to a fair, democratic election.
According to a recently-published study, during union organizing campaigns under the rules of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA):
• 34 percent of employers illegally fire at least one worker for union activity.
• 75 percent of employers hire consultants or union-busters to help them fight the union.
• 63 percent of employers force workers to attend one-on-one anti-union interrogation meetings with their own supervisors.
• 54 percent of employers threaten workers in such meetings.
• 57 percent of employers threaten to close the worksite if the union wins the election.
Obviously, the NLRA election process is broken. Ever since the Great Depression, federal labor law has provided the option for workers to form a union when a majority has signed authorization cards and those cards are validated. This is a thoroughly American process: a petition. But it is currently the corporation’s choice—not the workers’ choice—whether to follow that process. The solution is obvious. Give workers the freedom to choose a majority sign-up system.
The majority sign-up process has proven to work. Companies such as Cingular Wireless, Kaiser Permanente, and DaimlerChrysler have voluntarily let employees choose by majority sign-up whether to have a union—and this process has created less hostility and polarization in the workplace. In addition, 12 states allow certain public and private workers to join unions through the same majority sign-up process that is part of the Employee Free Choice Act. Under these laws, more than half a million workers have joined unions since 2003.
Opponents argue that the Employee Free Choice Act eliminates the “secret-ballot election.” But in fact, both the election and majority sign-up processes are permitted by current law and both would continue to be permitted. Since it is the workers’ right to organize, shouldn’t they be free to choose the representation process?
Opponents argue that a “secret-ballot election” is “American” and majority sign-up is not. But in fact, the current NLRA election process does not resemble any candidate or referendum election in America—the rules on campaigning and voting are entirely stacked to benefit management. Majority sign-up is essentially a petition, a concept that’s so American it’s in the U.S. Constitution.
Opponents argue that they represent the wishes of the majority of Americans. But in fact, Americans overwhelmingly support the Employee Free Choice Act. Seventy-two percent of Americans (87 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of Independents, and 48 percent of Republicans) favor the legislation after hearing both sides of the debate. Only 21 percent oppose the legislation.
Oh, the irony of it! Majority sign-up is being held up by a minority in Congress. No one doubts that the Employee Free Choice Act is supported by a majority of the House and Senate and that President Obama is eager to sign it. It is not yet law only because slightly more than 40 senators are presently willing to filibuster the measure and frustrate majority rule.
Make your voice heard. Visit our friends at American Rights at Work and give them a helping hand.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and author of the book, “Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People”.
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