Why America Needs Employee Free Choice Act
by Teamsters, Thu Jan 11, 2007 at 10:15:49 AM EST
Almost one-in-five union organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their activities in a union election campaign. This revelation came last week in a report (pdf) by The Center for Economic Policy and Research.
"Aggressive actions by employers -- often including illegal firings -- have significantly undermined the ability of U.S. workers to unionize their workplaces," said John Schmitt, CEPR senior economist and lead author of the paper. "With the legal penalties for such actions being so slight, employers can break the law to head-off organizing efforts and face almost no real repercussions."
The right of workers in this country to freely organize and bargain collectively is one of the sacred freedoms we have as Americans. It is just as important as free speech. It is also an essential human right. And since 2000 has been under increasing attack by the Bush Administration and large corporations, as CEPR's study reflects.
"We find a steep rise in the 2000s relative to the last half of the 1990s in illegal firings of pro-union workers," the study says.
In 1948, almost one-in-three workers was in a union; by 2005, the fraction had fallen to just one-in-eight. The drop-off in union membership has been particularly stark in the private sector, where, by 2005, only about one-in-twelve workers was unionized.
Several explanations have been put forward about the causes behind this decline, the authors write, including "a systematic attack on unions" by employers with "substantial legal support and cover."
This paper reviews evidence that provides significant support for the final explanation for union decline - that aggressive, even illegal, employer behavior has undermined the ability of U.S. workers to create unions at their work places. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) makes it illegal for employers to fire workers involved in union-organizing campaigns. The penalties associated with "discriminatory discharges" under the NLRA, however, are small: back pay for illegally fired workers minus any earnings that workers had after they were fired. Given these small penalties for illegal firings, the NLRA, in practice, has given employers a powerful anti-union strategy: fire one or more prominent pro-union employees - typically workers involved in organizing the union - with the hope of disrupting the internal workings of the union's campaign, while intimidating the rest of the potential bargaining unit in advance of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-supervised representation election.
... Employers engaging in illegal firing activities will generally discharge key union activists, rather than random employees believed to be sympathetic to the union.
... If we assume that ten percent of pro-union workers are union activists, then we can estimate that in 2005 union activists faced almost a 20 percent chance of being fired during a union-election campaign.
In a traditional organizing campaign, organizers collect signed cards from workers saying they want to be union members. When organizers collect cards from a majority of workers, they take the cards to the employer, who generally requests that the NLRB hold a secret-ballot election to verify the card count.
"The period between the time when unions present management with the signed cards and the actual NLRB-supervised election is typically the most
active period for employers that engage in aggressive and illegal anti-union behavior, including illegal firings," the CEPR report says.
Employers, however, also have the option to recognize the union based solely on the collection of cards, which is where the Employee Free Choice Act comes in.
Simply put, the bill would require employers to recognize a union after a majority of workers sign cards for union representation. It also would provide for mediation and arbitration of first-contract disputes, and authorize stronger penalties for illegal firings and other violations of the law when workers seek to form a union.
After all, as former Sen. John Edwards repeats often when speaking to labor unions: "If anyone in America can sign a card to join the Republican Party, they should be able to sign a card and join a union."
And he's right.
Unfortunately, George Bush's America, which the Republicans like to hold up as a model of freedom and democracy in the world, is anything but when it comes to union elections.
Human Rights Watch found that freedom of association is a right under severe, often buckling pressure when workers in the United States try to exercise it. Violations of this right occur across regions, industries, and employment status because U.S. labor law is feebly enforced and filled with loopholes. Some workers still succeed in organizing new unions, but only after surmounting major obstacles.
According to statistics from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency created to enforce workers' organizing and bargaining rights, the problem is getting worse.
... Simply put, if the rights of workers are not respected and protected, then the strength of American democracy and freedom is diminished. Both historical experience and a review of current conditions around the world indicate that freedom of association is a vital element of democratic societies. Human rights cannot flourish where workers' rights are not enforced.
Testimony of Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch (pdf) Before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
June 20, 2002.