Let’s Steward Unions Back In

The Employee Free Choice Act should be signed into law to protect U.S. workers from anti-union coercion by corporations. Pro or con?

Pro: Setting Global Standards of Fairness

The House of Representatives passed the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) this month. This measure would require employer recognition of a union when a majority of workers sign authorization cards indicating support for unionization.

Employers even now may voluntarily recognize a union based on a demonstrated majority or "card check." Cingular Wireless, now AT&T (T), has done this, perceiving the advantages of partnership with its workforce. Most employers, however, refuse to accept card check. Workers must petition for a government-supervised representation election in which employers have multiple opportunities to influence the outcome, often through delays and intimidation.

Unions have suffered a precipitous decline since the 1970s. More than 33% of American workers were organized in the 1950s. Now the proportion organized is around 12%. Employers have grown more aggressively anti-union. Many have terminated union activists. The remedies of the National Labor Relations Board for employer abuses have been slow and ineffective.

In the early days, the NLRB considered unionization a decision for workers alone and regarded employer intervention as inherently coercive. Unfortunately, the protections of the law have eroded since then. Despite considerable survey evidence suggesting a majority of American workers want independent representation, union membership continues to decline.

The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are mobilizing to defeat the EFCA. It should come as no surprise that these groups oppose a bill that would facilitate unionization. They have been hostile to unions since their founding. They claim to defend the workers’ right to a secret ballot election, by which they actually mean the employers’ right to obstruct.

These groups like to blame unionization for the the loss of jobs to overseas manufacturers. But they are ignoring a larger truth: that the protection of workers’ rights is integral to development and democracy whether in the U.S. or abroad.

Fortunately, there are many businesspeople who understand the economy is increasingly out of balance, and that unionism counts as an important remedy. The middle class is losing ground as top managers make astronomical salaries and workers’ wages remain flat. The economy suffers from a deficit of purchasing power. Society is less democratic. It is time for socially conscious business leaders to take a stand for a more balanced economy and defend workers’ freedom of association.

Con: Labor Bullying Redux

We’re worried that American competitiveness is about to be whacked by the Employee Free Choice Act, currently weaving an insidious path through Congress toward becoming law.

We know it must sound strange to oppose legislation that promises "free choice." But the bill won’t encourage liberty or self-determination in the workplace; more likely it will introduce intimidation and coercion by labor organizers who, after a long slide into near-oblivion, finally see a new route to millions of dues-paying members.

Their campaign could trigger a surge in unionization across U.S. industry—and a reversion to the bloated economy that brought America to its knees in the late 1970s and early 1980s. If you want to be reminded of what that looks like, drive through Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and take a look at all the shuttered factories. Steel—like coal, autos, and so many other industries in the global economy—paid the inevitable price of unionization run amok.

We don’t unilaterally oppose unions. Indeed, if a company is habitually unfair or unreasonable, it deserves what it gets from organized labor. But the problem with unions is that they make a sport out of killing productivity even when companies are providing good wages, benefits, and working conditions. It is not uncommon in a union shop to shut down production rather than allow a nonunion worker to flip a switch. In today’s global economy, companies today can’t afford such petty bureaucracy. The Employee Free Choice Act undermines labor and management’s ability to resolve such disputes.

How would the EFCA work? Currently, when labor organizers want to launch a unionization effort, they ask each worker to sign a card as a show of support. If 30% or more employees do so, a federally supervised election can be called and conducted with one of the most revered mechanisms in democracy, the secret ballot. Thus employees can vote their conscience without fear of retribution from either union leaders or management.

By contrast, under the Employee Free Choice Act, organizers could start a union if 50% of employees, plus one more worker, sign cards. That’s right—no more secret ballot. Instead, employees would likely get a phone call with a pointed solicitation, or a home visit from a small team of organizers who make it hard to say no.

Still, the advance of the Employee Free Choice Act continues unabated. If enough business leaders and legislators don’t stand up, it may well be: Hello again, unions. So long, American competitiveness.

Reader Comments

JimG

I think it's somewhat simplistic for Jack and Suzy Welch to blame unions for the shuttered factories and mines in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. Perhaps management was unwilling to invest in new technology that could have kept this region competitive with other producers. There are many factors at work here, including tougher environmental regulations in the U.S., shifting consumer demand, the value of the U.S. dollar, and free trade, which allowed other countries to dump low-cost steel into U.S. markets. Of course, unions deserve their share of the blame for fighting flexible work practices. Still, I wonder what some of the industrialized areas of China, Brazil, India, and even the former Eastern Bloc countries are going to look like 50 years from now. I've come to expect more sophisticated arguments than this from the Welches.

John Rose

The lack of enforcement of labor laws favors foreign car manufacturers that open up factories in the South that are impossible to organize. Ford, GM, and Chrysler, the American-owned companies, are already unionized, so the Employee Free Choice Act would benefit them by putting their competitors in the same constraints of having to negotiate with employees. Why does the GOP hate American-owned business so much?

patrick

The notion that unions are useful for anything in this newly global marketplace is arcane. Unions protect laziness, which countries like India suffer far less of than we do.

Tom

I'm looking at my 7 Habits of Highly Effective People daily calendar. The quote for Wednesday, March 28, 2007 is:

"You can buy a person's hand, but you can't buy his heart. His heart is where his enthusiasm, his loyalty is. You can buy his back, but you can't buy his brain. That's where his creativity is, his ingenuity, his resourcefulness."

My interpretation of what Covey is saying is that you should treat employees with genuine respect. I don't think Corporate America does anymore. At the moment, wages for the middle class in America are stagnant and declining. At the same time, we have to pick up the tab for the health care, education, and law enforcement associated with illegal immigration. Personally, I come in contact with many people who I assume are illegal immigrants every day, and they are some of the most genuinely nice and hard-working people I've ever met. Unfortunately, I think America has sold many of them a bill of goods. What about a mom who comes here for a better life only to find her son is in a gang by age 14 and imprisoned by 18? Are we really helping that family? Also, the insourcing and outsourcing of IT via H1-B, etc. is also causing American wages to stagnate. Full employment stats don't tell the whole story when C++ coders are working as Wal-Mart greeters.

Therefore, I think the Employee Free Choice Act is a great start for increasing the standard of living of the American middle Class.

EmployerReport.com

As a former union activist, I've always believed there are those who do and then there are those who teach. Professor Jacobs should get out of the classroom and into the real world, create a product or service, and employ workers. Then he undoubtedly would have no problem letting his workers unionize. He also would probably have no problem letting a government bureaucrat impose a contract on him dictating the terms and conditions between him and his employees. Professor, companies create jobs, not unions, and when you put shackles on the creators, those that rely on them for their survival will suffer. EFCA will result in huge job losses. Count on it.

Jim G (comment above) should check his facts. The destruction of the U.S. steel industry can be traced back to the Great Steel Strike of 1959. Unions in this country have killed the golden goose, and they only have themselves to blame for it. They do not need an act of Congress to help prolong their demise.

Kaptandrews

Debate has long been the center of our great democracy. It is nice to exercise your rights of free speech and be given the opportunity to support or oppose the EFCA.

I believe this act will do much-needed good for the U.S. economy, given the points made by the previous posters (i.e., outsourcing of IT). The U.S. cannot continue to allow the domestic policy of the current administration to bring our great country to its knees. Current policies are paving the way for countries like India, China, and Russia to surpass us in economic growth as we watch our standard of living decline. It is time we start to focus on our own people and their freedoms, Mr. Bush and company. Corporate America has had a pass for eight-plus years now, and look how it has abused it (Enron, MCI, etc.). Bloated compensation plans for CEOs and stagnant middle-class wages are way out of balance. No one is saying these CEOs don't make tough decisions, but $15 million to $30 million makes them a bit overpriced if you ask me. I am not asking to make a million-dollar salary, but what's fair is fair for my part in turning those tough decisions into realities.

Thanks for allowing me to exercise my Constitutional rights.

Warren

I grew working in union auto factories and put myself through college with the money. What I witnessed was not pretty: people bullied to join the union and forced to be unproductive, and Workers Comp abused by top-ranked union stewards. So in many respects, it made me anti-union.

On the other hand, I later graduated and worked in the tech industry, where you would toil for long hours with no overtime pay—but with the promise that your stock options would pay off. Not only did they not but also my job was outsourced to India. To add insult to injury, I was forced to train my replacements, not knowing that they would take my job some day. The company profited from my contributions and then discarded me.

That's why I think we need a type of union. I hate to say it, but sometimes government regulation preventing these weasels from continuing on this un-American path is needed. After all, isn't being patriotic caring about the success of fellow Americans, or is it to profit at all costs?

Gary2

Unions are good if their leaders recognize that selling their products should be unregulated and based on competition. Competition means trouble for unionized companies with fixed labor costs. These costs are undercut by competitors who recognize that during fat times, there is easy money to be made, and during leaner times, you must adapt and change. If it takes the complete dismantling of Detroit's Big Three to force competitive changes, so be it. Next, we stop paying millions for union-made roads, tanks, airplanes, and weapons. Then we go after teachers wages. In other words, if we assume that the fat times will be here forever, we will be out of business due to our own desire to be "worth" more.

If you are a part of the already sizeable workforce out of the union loop, you understand that the biggest union of all is the U.S. Congress. The best way to get the attention of those "public servants" is to fire all of them and bring in replacement leaders at a reduced wage with no benefits except enrollment in an HMO. Make Congress teach their own replacements, and then give them six months of unemployment benefits. In other words, the people at the top got rich on our backs, so it's time to offer our leaders $10 an hour without a pension plan. I realize they will be considered overpaid, but they can relocate and find another country that will pay them a wage similar to what they are accustomed to receiving, or they can flip burgers and strive to be massage therapists like everybody else who used to be a union member.

Jeff Burman

The debate over the worthiness of the Employee Free Choice Act should narrowly look at what the bill does and why it's doing it.

It makes forming unions easier by allowing a majority of workers at a given job site to make their own decision about forming a union. The bill's provisions minimize interference from employers, which has a persistent way of intimidating employees making these kinds of decisions. Anyone who carefully looks into this issue knows about the ready availability of "union avoidance" consultants and how ineffective current law is when it comes to protecting union activity at work. As things stand today, there is hardly a level playing field in union organizing. Employers almost always have the upper hand in the weeks and months before an NLRB election.

Forming a union is simply an honest expression of a desire for fair treatment at work. Exploitation is an old-fashioned word, one that is easily dismissed. But workers without effective collective bargaining are more easily exploited.

Give the vast majority of American workers a break. Give them a clear and unfettered chance to choose a union.

Joe

Look at where we are now after voodoo economics came into vogue and companies got rid of union workers. The current prosperity is a Potemkin village. Economic social Darwinism will eventually backfire. Free employee choice to unionize will strengthen our free enterprise system. Respected workers equal respected customers equal a vibrant economy.

Ruthmarie

I've seen what can happen when unions get out of control. I need look no further than the teachers union in our local school district—$100k a year plus soaring benefits and a very cushy retirement package is milking the homeowners dry, and a tax revolt is brewing. In this day and age, it stands out as an exception to the rule of declining union power.

On the other hand, I worked in an industry where the average employee was used and abused. Wages were kept low by a constant influx of J-1 and H1-B visa imports. Outsourcing was making jobs scarce, and wages were falling so fast it was breathtaking. I have seen first hand what the lack of worker protections can do. It makes life far sweeter for a tiny minority at the expense of making life for the majority a treacherous and dangerous proposition.

Let's be honest, this tug-of-war between labor and management has been going on ever since the dawn of capitalism. For the most part, labor has been losing the battle for 30 years now. It is time for the tide to turn in the other direction, or we will head down a path that is nothing less than a race to the bottom. The middle class can not continue to stagnate like this without undermining the foundations of our democracy. Unions need to make a come back—soon.

guillone

The American worker has the right to organize and collectively bargain for a living wage.

Ray

Jack Welch has a lot of nerve blaming America's industrial decline on unions. It was Welch who famously told CNN's Moneyline in 1998, "Ideally, you'd have every plant you own on a barge."

Corporate America has been disinvesting for a generation, not because of unions but because companies could take advantage of billions of poor people in Mexico, China, and around the world who are willing to work for $3 or $4 a day. If unions were the problem, all those non-union clothing and textile mills in the Carolinas whose work was shipped to China would still be open.

Jack Welch and his friends are intent on driving down wages and benefits in the USA so they and "shareholders" can maximize their income. That's why The New York Times reported yesterday of "the top 1% of Americans—those with incomes that year of more than $348,000—receiving their largest share of national income since 1928" in 2005, while "average incomes for those in the bottom 90% dipped slightly compared with the year before, dropping $172, or 0.6%." That's also why Circuit City announced this week it was laying off 3,000 non-union employees and replacing them with lower paid workers.

Without unions, Americans are vulnerable to the rape and pillage policies of the elites extending from manufacturing to services and other industries. Workplace elections now resemble the those held under Saddam Hussein. You are intimidated, threatened, and terminated if you speak up for the union, and even if the union wins, 50% of the time, employers avoid negotiating a contract, frustrating the workers' "secret ballot."

The Employee Free Choice Act gives American workers a chance to stand up for themselves and at least slow down the pillage and preserve some of the middle class. Congress should pass it, and Bush should sign it, but he won't, because he is one of Jack Welch's cronies.

Alex

We are in a global economy. Free trade has improved our standard of living and that of people in many other countries. Free trade has also reduced inflation and minimized the length, depth, and number of recessions. Job growth in the United States has been terrific while job growth in Europe (a heavily unionized, pro-worker environment) has been literally nonexistent. A flexible labor market is the main difference. Unions reduce flexibility, which causes problems, especially during slowdowns, and will bankrupt more companies and industries and force even more production overseas. Look at steel, autos, and airlines, which are heavily unionized. Competition is the driver of future success, and the lowest cost producer will win.

A vote should be the private decision of each worker.

James D.

As a former union activist, I would advise employereport.com to check his facts and maybe remember where he came from. This country was built on the backs of the American worker, who has been historically exploited by the so-called creators. Seriously, there would be no unions if companies treated their employees with respect and fairness. But they don't, and that's the result of a system that puts capital above people. I know that as long as employers can get cheap labor, they will undermine worker attempts at seeking decent and fair working conditions; therefore the struggle that is characterized by unionization will continue. And it won't stop here in the U.S. Just because a company can send jobs overseas doesn't mean the fighting of unions is over. There is a powerful movement around the world to unionize all workers. It is a labor globalization that will meet the corporate globalization head to head in the future. Of course, companies will use corrupt and repressive governments as the way to deal with these movements. Still, people will fight for a decent living wherever they are. And unions are the best way for the worker to do that. The EFCA is truly the right thing for our leaders to do. The race to the bottom for the American worker will do nothing to save the middle class and nothing for American productivity.

jljamup

Send the union leaders to Iraq to organize the Shiites and Sunni. There they will get their dues.

e man

I am scared by all the folks who think unions will provide economic security and improve our national economy. Unions have seen a drop in membership not because of lax government laws/enforcement or intimidation by management. Unions have been dying off because they are no longer competitive. They have not changed their stripes and kept up with the times. Essentially they have written themselves out of the picture because of their unwillingness to work with management. Does the UAW really think they can keep the current situation going with Ford, Chrysler, and GM? All three are unprofitable partly because of their labor costs and quality problems. Even if you fix the management problems at those companies, which there have been plenty, the labor issues alone can still take any of them down. The unions are trying to preserve something that no longer exists. I will believe they have changed when I see the unions support a Republican or better yet, get out of politics all together and support none of them.

David Snead

Tell Senators: Support the Employee Free Choice Act:
http://www.unionvoice.org/campaign/EFCAsenate
http://www.employeefreechoiceact.org/

Daniel E Stafford

Yes, bring on the Employee Free Choice Act now. Employees know that without a union, they have no one to turn to.

Matt

Unions do protect lazy people. The wages are also off the chart. I had to deal with the idiots for years. Can't unload my own truck and have to hire a union lumper. Getting harassed by Union BA's and being told I had to buy a card to work. In my 20 years on the workforce I have yet to see a good Union.

David Snead

Our Constitution is a declaration of unionization, and we the people of this great nation are reminded so elegantly every year in the State of the Union Address. I would like anyone to show me where in our Constitution it declares that employers are exempt from its laws.

Employers need to understand that our Constitution is here to stay, and that we the people of this great union will exercise our rights to the fullest, as it is our right to do so, guaranteed. By supporting the Employee Free Choice Act, we the people of this great union protect and preserve our U.S. Constitution.

Thank you. God Bless this great union and the Employee Free Choice Act. Amen.
--U.S. military veteran (retired)

Rich Egeland

It'll be the same as before. A card will have to be signed and no one other than the person who signs the card, the person who collects the card, and the NLRB will see these cards. The NLRB needs to see them so they can be compared to the Excelsior list. If an employer were to take the cards by nefarious means (and I work for one like that) then it is an unfair labor practice and the union is instantly in.

I find it interesting that those who are against the Employee Free Choice Act are the same ones who said that the Paycheck Protection Act would actually protect union employees. What the act really wanted to do was to have a special election by the rank and file for every purchase that a union had to make. That was just the start of it.

Why would big business pursue a course to "protect" the free choice of workers? The only answer is that if we were to let their paternalistic behavior persuade us into giving up our hard fought rights, then they will be able to do anything and everything that they ever wanted to for their bottom line no matter how adversely it would affect the working class.

Here is an example from history. The Soviets had a method of clearing minefields in WWII. They would have battalions of their soldiers walk across the fields and detonate the mines as they trod on them so that the tanks could press on. When asked why they did that, the Soviet generals replied, "Tanks are expensive and we have plenty of Russians." American business has adopted this philosophy all too well.

Michael

What unions do effectively is take an indivdual in a market--a laborer, and convert him or her into a commodity. Then like OPEC, they withhold the commodity unless the buyer meets their demands. That's strength in bargaining, but its also extortion.

Globalization (NAFTA and Most Favored Nation agreements) have compelled American employers to evaluate whether work can be outsourced to areas of competitive advantage, i.e., similar skills--but lower wages and lower benefits costs, plus no FMLA leaves, and without negotiated benefits like numerous paid sick days, daily double time, and without agressive protection for malingering, substance abuse, vulgarity, etc.

Additionally, if "democracy" incorporates an exchange of ideas and a secret ballot, why prevent an employer from issuing a rebuttal to union promises, and why bar a secret ballot Answer: The unions are not winning with these rules (which have existed since the 1930s), so we need new rules so they can win more often. Thats not "democracy."

Last, while the IBT is still under a consent decree, and sect.-treasurers of the IBT, Carpenters, Operating Engineers, etc. are still being monthly barred for nepotism, emblezzlement, and mafia ties, I'm not ready to declare them a "democratic" organization.

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