Anyone in the United States can join a political party, a faith group or a community organization simply by signing up. But such freedom of association stops at the workplace door. When workers try to form a union under current rules, they run a gantlet of antiunion intimidation and propaganda from their supervisors and outside consultants while waiting for a union election. In half of all election campaigns, employers effectively threaten to close the workplace if workers unionize, and in a typical recent year bosses disciplined or fired at least 23,000 workers for trying to form a union. But the penalties even for illegal behavior are minuscule.
In large part because of such harassment, the percentage of workers in unions has been shrinking dramatically in recent decades. Now only 12.5 percent of workers are union members–from a high of about 35 percent in the mid-1950s–even though 53 percent of nonunion, nonmanagerial workers say they would like to belong to a union. The country's basic labor law, which was passed in 1935 and still declares that it's national policy to encourage collective bargaining, now obstructs union organizing more than it helps.
That's why unions are pushing hard for the new, Democrat- controlled Congress to pass legislation that would make it easier for workers to form a union. The proposal, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), would guarantee recognition of a union when a majority of workers sign union cards–hence the phrase "card-check recognition." It provides for mediation and then arbitration if management and the union can't agree on a contract, and it greatly strengthens penalties for unfair labor practices.
In the first decade after the 1935 law was passed, most workers organized unions through card-check recognition, and in recent years most workers who have successfully organized have used the same technique, such as 5,000 janitors in Houston and 22,000 Cingular Wireless employees in the past two years. When employers are not hostile and unions organize a workplace through card checks rather than elections, the unions are much more likely to win. Without this new law, employers will continue to ignore cards and demand elections, even though the only thing these elections have in common with democracy is the casting of ballots. Simple recognition when a majority of workers sign cards is a more democratic process for protecting the right–enshrined in national and international law–of workers to join a union.
Even in the last Congress, the EFCA legislation, sponsored by Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative George Miller, had the support of forty-four Senators and 215 Representatives, including some Republicans. Labor unions played a key role in winning the Democratic majority in the new Congress, mobilizing more than 200,000 volunteers and spending record amounts for a midterm election, including $40 million from the AFL-CIO alone. And incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi has promised to put EFCA on the fast track, aiming to bring the bill to a vote by early spring. The legislation will face harder going in the Senate.
The legislation will not succeed even in the House without a massive push, not only by mobilizing the army of union stewards and activists from the AFL-CIO but also by all progressive organizations. This is not just a labor issue. It's first of all an issue of basic human rights and democracy, including freedom of association and speech. Strengthening workers' rights is also critical for creating a fairer, more just America. There is a direct link between the decline of union power over the past three decades and the rise of economic inequality and the shift of economic risk from employers and government to individuals. Members obviously gain most from unionization, but all workers–and society as a whole–benefit. Where unions are stronger, all wages are higher, pensions and healthcare plans are better, workplaces are safer and poverty rates are lower.
Stronger unions are a necessary, if not by themselves sufficient, requirement for the rebirth of a broader progressive movement, especially where it concerns bread-and-butter issues. When workers are in unions, they are more likely to vote for economically progressive candidates. In the November election, for example, white born-again Christians as a group voted for Republican House candidates by a 41 point margin, but white born-again union members voted Democratic by a 15 point margin. The Employee Free Choice Act is a critical first step toward making life more fair and secure for average Americans.