JOHN SWEENEY the president of the AFL-CIO US trade union federation has spoken out in favour of the Employee Free Choice Act.
He said last Friday: ‘At the heart of the fight to pass the federal Employee Free Choice Act is one issue: How do we ensure the freedom of working people to make their own decision about whether to form unions and bargain with employers for better wages, benefits and working conditions?
‘In American life, majority will is determined in a number of ways – by voice votes, standing votes, raised hands, mail balloting, in voting booths and in other forms.
‘When workers try to form unions, majority will is established in one of two ways: Some responsible employers, such as Cingular Wireless, agree to recognise the union when a majority of workers votes by signing union-authorisation cards.
‘They recognise this as a free and fair way to assess workers’ choice that reduces workplace conflict and puts workers and management on a level playing field.
‘In most cases, however, employers force workers to endure the broken process of a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) “election.”
‘I put that sugar-coated word in quotes because a more reality-based term is management-controlled balloting.
‘Management-controlled balloting does not allow workers the freedom to make their own choice about whether to have a union.
‘Its one-sided rules give the boss all the power and all the choices.
‘Workers do not have a free choice when the employer alone controls which method they must use to decide whether to form a union.
‘Workers do not have a free choice when just filing a petition for an NLRB election triggers a bitter, divisive and often lengthy anti-union campaign designed to chill or destroy union support.
‘It’s not free choice when suspected pro-union workers are routinely harassed, intimidated, spied upon, discriminated against, punished or even fired.
‘The NLRB itself acknowledges that a worker is fired or discriminated against for union activity at least once every 23 minutes.
‘It’s not free choice when management can bombard employees with anti-union messages anywhere, anytime in the workplace while workers can talk about the union only on break time and only in the break area, and union organisers have no right to set foot in the workplace.
‘It’s not free choice when in 78 per cent of campaigns the boss requires supervisors to shovel anti-union propaganda to the employees whose schedules, evaluations and advancement they control.
‘Or when in 92 per cent of campaigns the employer requires workers to attend one-sided, anti-union meetings where management can legally fire pro-union workers who speak out.
‘And it’s not free choice when, even after workers win the fight to form a union, employers never agree to a contract in one-third of those cases.
‘The NLRB process may be called an “election” – but it’s nothing like any democratic election held in any other part of our society.
‘Right now, corporate special interests are amassing big war chests for advertising and lobbying to mislead Congress and the public about the Employee Free Choice Act.
‘They claim that voting by majority sign-up isn’t good enough, that workers should remain saddled with the broken NLRB process that is perverted by corporate coercion and intimidation.
‘They’re going to make it sound like they care about what’s best for workers.
‘But in truth they will fight like hell to maintain the current system because it enables corporations to block workers’ freedom to decide for themselves whether to have unions and bargain.
‘The last thing they want is a level playing field.
‘The idea of giving working families a shot at prosperity is anathema to the folks who have been shipping our jobs overseas where they can pay pitiful wages and thumb their noses at anything resembling workers’ rights.
‘The corporate fight against the Employee Free Choice Act is about the dollars.
‘Joining together to bargain for better wages and benefits is the best opportunity for working people to get ahead.
‘Union workers are paid 29 per cent more than nonunion workers, on average, and are 62 per cent more likely to have employer-provided health coverage and four times more likely to have pensions.
‘So when you see the high-priced ads coming out attacking the Employee Free Choice Act, chalk it up to a bunch of corporate special interests hellbent on protecting their profits at the cost of basic fairness, economic opportunity and America’s middle class.
‘Remember that the real issue is this: Do we want to accept the status quo or change it so working men and women have the freedom to pursue a better life?’
UAW leader Ron Gettelfinger has spoken up on the same issue.
He said: ‘American employers no longer routinely break heads to bust unions, but they are still willing to break every rule in the book.
‘Smart employers know that when workers have a voice, the result will be better labour relations, long-term stability and improved quality and innovation.
‘But not all employers are smart. Many would go to any extreme to defeat a union organising drive and avoid the obligation to sit across the table from workers and bargain an agreement that addresses the concerns of both labour and management.
‘Threaten to close a plant? It’s illegal, but there’s no real penalty. Fire union supporters? You might have to provide back pay in a few years, but many employers are willing to pay this price.
‘When these tactics fail, and workers win anyway, many employers try another approach. They simply pretend the election never took place.
‘That’s what happened at St Clair Die Casting in St Clair, Mo. Workers at this small shop outside of St Louis build castings for small motors. In October 2003, they voted by a 58 per cent majority to become part of the UAW. They wanted to bargain over wages, health care, retirement options and other issues.
‘Nearly four years later, they have no signed labour agreement. At first, management refused to bargain, claiming the election was tainted because four ‘supervisors’ voted (even though the election was decided by a 20-vote margin).
‘These objections were dismissed by a three-member panel of the National Labor Relations Board in May 2004 (including two members appointed by President Bush), and again in September 2005 by a unanimous decision of the Eighth Circuit US Court of Appeals.
‘Finally, in February 2006 – two years and four months after winning their election – workers at St Clair Die Casting had their first chance to sit down and bargain with their employer.
‘More than a dozen bargaining sessions have taken place in the year since then, but workers still have no contract, as the company continues to find excuses to stall bargaining and avoid reaching a real agreement.
Refusing to negotiate in good faith after workers win an election is against the law. But current labour law has no teeth. That’s why it’s time to update our labour laws, by passing the bipartisan Employee Free Choice Act.
The bill would remove obstacles to union organising and give workers a genuine free choice by requiring employers to recognise a union once a majority of workers signed union authorisation cards.
This would eliminate some of the intimidation and coercion that employers use against workers who are trying to organise.
‘Under current law, majority sign-up can be used to determine whether workers want a union – but only if management agrees.
‘Under the Free Choice Act, workers could choose majority sign-up or a secret ballot election to form a union. But it would be up to workers, not employers, to decide which method to use.
‘The reforms will require arbitration of first contracts. So if a company like St Clair Die Casting drags its feet and refuses to bargain, an arbitrator will have the power to mandate contract terms.
‘The same scenario would apply if a labour union refused to bargain on a reasonable basis. This creates an incentive for both sides to negotiate – exactly the kind of labour-management cooperation that is called for in the original National Labor Relations Act.
‘Finally, the proposal will stiffen penalties against employers who use illegal tactics. Firing a union supporter will get expensive: he or she would get triple his or her salary. That’s three times the penalty under current law, hopefully enough to put a stop to this naked abuse of authority.
‘Public opinion polls show that 53 per cent of workers would vote yes for union representation if given a chance. But just 12 per cent of workers are now union members. Why the disconnect?
‘Because you can’t have a genuine democratic election when your boss is threatening to fire you or shut down your workplace if you vote the ‘wrong’ way. It’s time for the boss to butt out of union elections, so workers have a real opportunity to make up their own minds.’