Can labor pave the road to economic recovery?
Earlier this month more than 4,000 workers rallied on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to deliver the cards, petitions and signatures of one and a half million Americans demanding the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
The EFCA is labor's number one priority this year, and labor rights advocates say that the act's passage could help to restore balance between workers in their negotiations with employers.
For the past couple of decades, union membership in the United States has rapidly declined, leading to slipping workforce power and fewer benefits for employees. Union membership rose to 12.4 percent in 2008, an increase from 2007's 12.1 percent, yet still a far drop from the 20.1 percent of 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Labor rights advocates say that the three pillars of the EFCA could turn the tides for labor: making it easier for workers to organize a union by allowing majority sign-up, also known as "card-check," union authorization; imposing binding arbitration on employers and the union if they fail to negotiate a first contract under certain deadlines; and creating stiffer financial penalties for employers who violate workers' rights during organizing campaigns or contract negotiations.
The act was first introduced in 2003 and won approval in the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2007, but a Republican filibuster prevented it from coming up for a vote in the Senate. Even though the EFCA has yet to even get floor time in the 111th Congress, groups on both side of the issue are already battling on numerous fronts across the nation.
The Corporate Response
Calling the EFCA an "Armageddon for business," Corporate America is waging a multimillion-dollar PR and ad campaign against the EFCA. Much of these corporate campaigns have focused on the EFCA's card-check provision.
Corporate lobbyists are even using the rhetoric and imagery of the U.S. voting rights movement, arguing that their campaign against the bill is really a stand for "voting rights" as they make the false claims that the EFCA would eliminate secret-ballot union elections.
Corporate shills such as Americans for Prosperity are putting on country-wide forums -- "Save my Ballot" tours and "Say No To Card Check" events -- that businesses claim are aimed at protecting "the right to vote for millions of workers across the nation."
These forums are complimented by groups such as "Save Our Secret Ballots," a coalition of Republican and corporate leaders campaigning aggressively against the EFCA. In fact, SOSB is trying to amend state constitutions to guarantee secret-ballot union elections and prevent card check.
The Progressive States network reported that the SOSB (which refuses to disclose its donors) appears to be a project of conservative think-tanks such as the Goldwater Institute (which wrote the language of the bills) and the national Heritage Foundation (whose representative chairs the SOSB national advisory board).
Labor rights groups such as American Rights at Work are stepping up their efforts to fight what they call the "corporate smear campaign to mislead the public" into thinking the EFCA would eliminate the secret ballot. Labor groups are quick to respond that secret-ballot elections are not prohibited under the EFCA. The EFCA would allow workers to choose between secret-ballot elections and card-check (card check only passes when the majority of employees sign a card expressing their desire to join the union). Under the EFCA, the right is given to workers, and not the employers, to choose which method they prefer. Many unions pursue card-check campaigns simply because secret-ballot elections are easily manipulated by employers during the long pre-election period. Employers often use the time to engage in coercive anti-union campaigning to influence workers not to vote for the union. During this period, workers can face harassment, intimidation, and even be fired simply for trying to exercise their right to organize.
Labor rights activists point out the that current laws are stacked against workers. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, companies break U.S. labor laws with impunity and often factor in potential penalties as the cost of doing business. As HRW explains: "US labor law currently permits a wide range of employer conduct that interferes with worker organizing. Enforcement delays are endemic, regularly denying aggrieved workers their right to an 'effective remedy.' Sanctions for illegal conduct are too feeble to adequately discourage employer law breaking, breaching the international law requirement that penalties be 'sufficiently dissuasive' to deter violations."
This is the type of harsh environment that suppresses unionization and any chance at actual free and fair elections, labor advocates argue. Nearly three in five American workers say they would vote to join a union if they could, according to a poll done by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. But intimidation, firings and harassment often hamper the cause. Employees are fired in about 25% of all organizing campaigns, and they often face several years of legal battles to get reinstated.
Despite the work of labor groups to correct corporate disinformation campaigns, business groups continue to dole out big bucks to defeat the EFCA. American Rights at Work points out that business coalitions such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spent millions on PR campaigns, advertising and outreach efforts to defeat the EFCA. Labor rights groups also decry the increase in the number of suspected front groups -- part of large national networks of anti-worker organizations often receiving funds from undisclosed corporations -- that have sprung up to organize against the EFCA.
Notorious Washington, D.C. corporate lobbyists such as Richard Berman and his lobbying and corporate consulting firm Berman and Company, have taken up the union-busting cause as well. Berman is known for creating front groups for the alcohol and tobacco industries that target public interest and consumer safety groups; his firm even targeted Mothers Against Drunk Driving on behalf of the alcohol industry. In 2008, court filings revealed Berman's role in Smithfield Foods' union-busting efforts over the last decade. Now Berman is suspected of running at least 15 corporate fronts, including the Center for Union Facts (backed by the Chamber of Commerce) and the Employee Freedom Action Committee, both of which produce anti-EFCA propaganda. Other corporate fronts such as the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace (funded by the Chamber of Commerce, the Associated Builders and Contractors, and the Wal-Mart dominated Retail Industry Leaders Association) have already contributed millions to the fight against the EFCA and played a large role in creating the ads that claimed the EFCA takes away the secret ballot.
Americans for Prosperity also has a history in drumming up PR campaigns to defeat progressive causes. While AFP have been active on labor issues in their fight against the EFCA, they were also a leading opposition to the Obama administration's new stimulus plan. As Facing South reported last week, the organization is heavily funded by oil and gas interests and has been actively campaigning against any government efforts to tackle climate change.
What is the Union Advantage?
Labor rights advocates argue that the steady decline of the labor movement over the past 30 has added to the severity of the current economic crisis; they point out that any true stimulus would have to give workers higher incomes to provide the type of consumer demand that the economy will need for a sustained recovery. Decreasing union rates and wage stagnation (worker wages increased just 0.2 percent from March 2001 to September 2008) have worked to weaken the economy, creating a working class without a sustainable purchasing power. As the Center for American Progress Action Fund pointed out in a recent report, a sustainable economy is one where workers are adequately rewarded and have the income they need to purchase goods.
Unions play a major role in providing this sustainability, labor advocates argue. Unions in fact were a key method of economic recovery during the 1940s -- labor groups point out that one-third of all American workers joined unions and shared in economic progress between 1947 and the early 1970s.
Labor history has also shown that unions paved the way to the middle class for millions of workers. The ability to form unions directly corresponds with higher pay for workers. Here's some statistics: Workers in unions earn 14 percent higher wages than workers who are not, are 28 percent more likely to have health insurance, and 54 percent more likely to have a pension. African American workers in unions earn 18 percent more than their nonunion counterparts, while Latinos earn 22 percent more.
According to estimates from the Economic Policy Institute, if 5 million more service workers were to join unions:
- 5 million workers would get a 22 percent raise on average, or an additional $7,000 a year;
- $34 billion in total new wages would flow into the economy;
- 900,000 jobs would be lifted above the poverty wage for a family of four ($10.22/hr);
- Between 1.8 million and 3 million dependent children would share in these benefits; and
- The economic impact on individuals would be about four times as large as the recent federal minimum wage increase, and allow nearly six times more in new wages to flow into the economy.
It is in light of these types of statistics that unions and labor groups continue to argue that the EFCA could be an integral part of both the economic recovery of the country and play a major role in restoring the middle class. "It is not a panacea, but a modest reform, rooted in the labor laws inherited from the New Deal that responds to the growing failures of those laws...it could not only help workers who join unions but all working people, the economy and the future of progressive politics," writes David Morberg for In These Times.
Labor advocates point out that the passage of the EFCA could have a huge impact on improving wages in the South. Nationally, the "union advantage" that results from having a union is a 12% boost in wage levels. In states that have laws restricting workers' rights to form strong unions, many of which are in the South, the average pay for all workers is lower. The average pay in states with so-called "right to work" laws was 14.4 percent lower than in states where workers have the freedom to form strong unions. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia all have these anti-worker laws on the books.
The Road Ahead
In December 2008, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), called EFCA an "important piece of legislation" and promised that the Senate would try to take it up this summer.
Political observers will be watching to see if Democrats can muster the 60 votes needed in the Senate to stop a filibuster this time around. Several Southern Democratic senators are waffling about their support of the measure. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) has gone on record saying that the EFCA "isn't necessary," which isn't so shocking considering large corporations such as Wal-Mart and Tyson Food have contributed to her campaign over the years.
President Obama and his nominee for labor secretary, Rep. Hilda Solis (D., Calif.), both supported the original bill when it came through the House and Senate the first time. And in recent remarks, President Obama has argued that unions are essential to the long-term health of the economy. "I don't buy the argument that providing workers with collective-bargaining rights somehow weakens the economy or worsens the business environment," Obama told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "If you've got workers who have decent pay and benefits, they're also customers for business."
Needless to say, the national stage is set, and both sides of the issue are already far along their way in fighting what could be the most important battle for labor rights' in a generation.
(Graph from the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)