The Employee Free Choice Act: Why You Should Care

(Photo: It’s not just a barista thing; you will understand. Credit: Starbucks Union.)

Today, a momentary hop back onto the labor movement bandwagon to talk about the Employee Free Choice Act, and why you should care about it.

The Act is an attempt by Congress to seal the holes in the 72-year-old National Labor Relations/Wagner Act, a progressive 1935 law aimed at giving workers the right to collectively bargain by forming unions. The latter law hasn’t worked in years. The new Democratic Congress is seeking to change that. The Bush Administration vehemently opposes the bill. (But you kind of figured that already, didn’t you?)

My labor-movement buddy, Sarah Massey, is pretty fired up on this one:

“People want the opportunity to climb the ladder into the middle class by owning a home, saving for retirement, and sending their kids to college. For a growing number of workers, that dream literally is out of reach. Very often these days, when workers strive to do something about their circumstances, like come together to collectively bargain, they are illegally fired or punished. It’s as if the anti-union employers pull the rungs right out from under them and they fall off the ladder–and the precipice–into economic ruin. ” [Ed. note: Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed viscerally drives this point home.]

And why is that happening? According to labor economist Harley Shaiken, quoted in the Los Angeles Times on February 17:

“…amendments, court rulings and NLRB administrative decisions have turned the (Wagner) act on its head, serving to throttle rather than encourage a free and informed choice on unions. Today, if workers try to organize, the NLRB generally sets a secret-ballot vote a month or more after the formal request. During this period, it is legal for the company to hire anti-union consultants, schedule an unlimited number of mandatory meetings with employees, ‘predict’ that the workplace could be shuttered if the union wins, and bar labor representatives from the premises.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not the kind of “progress” Congress intended in 1935.

Shaiken reports that although 58% of eligible workers would join a union today if they could, union membership in the private sector stands at a record-low 7.4%. Why? Fear. According to NLRB’s 2005 annual report (PDF file), in that year alone, 31,358 workers were disciplined or fired for union activity.

Another labor activisit, outspoken Latina Jackie Guerra, host of the talk-radio show Workin’ It, had this to say on her February 3 broadcast:

“Sixty-million workers say that they want to join a union. If they could form one without it risking their livelihoods, they would join tomorrow. Union workers earn almost a third more, and they are two-thirds more likely to have health insurance, and therefore decent health care. This is the first generation where young people fear that they are going to be worse off than the generation before.”

The Employee Free Choice Act is a remedy that could turn that trend around. The Act would:

–strengthen penalties against scofflaw employers;

–require mediation and arbitration to help employers and employees reach a first contract in a reasonable period of time; and

–allow workers to form a union through a “majority sign-up,” a simple process in which workers present signed authorization cards as demonstration of their choice to belong to a union.

A growing, bipartisan coalition of policymakers supports the Act. You should, too. How? Contact your Congressional representatives and tell them so (if you’re in Cook County, IL, you can use Civic Footprint to find out who represents you and how to contact them).

The Employee Free Choice Act may not work miracles, but miracles, anyway, aren’t the goal. A few basic, real protections for the rights of workers seeking to rise above through collective bargaining, a few, strong, incremental changes, that’s the point. In the words of Jackie Guerra:

“This legislation restores workers’ rights the same way we eat tortillas, one by one.”

Make mine maiz.

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