Some 57 million nonunion workers in the United States say they would form a union tomorrow if given the chance, according to new poll conducted in February by Peter D. Hart and Associates. For many of them, especially women and people of color, having a union is often the difference between living in or out of poverty. Yet the truth is that a sophisticated and systematic effort to deny workers their basic freedom of association is rampant in this country.
Employers and antiunion consultants have effectively thwarted the intent and efficacy of the law that supposedly guarantees workers the freedom to form unions, a human right protected by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized by the US government thirteen years earlier in the National Labor Relations Act.
To put it in perspective: More than 20,000 US workers were fired or discriminated against for union activities, according to a National Labor Relations Board annual report. That amounts to a worker in this country being fired or discriminated against every twenty-six minutes for exercising the basic human right to form or join a union. Most employers infringe on workers’ freedom to make their own decisions–routinely using legal and illegal tactics to thwart their efforts–according to Cornell University researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner. Fully one-quarter of private-sector employers illegally fire workers. And even after workers jump through all the hoops under current law and win recognition for their union, employers refuse to agree to initial collective bargaining contracts nearly half the time. This is a moral outrage.
Simply put: Our labor laws are so weak that employers routinely get away with breaking them, and when they are punished the penalties are insufficient to deter other unscrupulous employers from breaking the law. Right now the only penalty for most violations of the rights of workers to form unions is that the company must post a notice stating that it violated the law. Sometimes it takes several years before that happens, long after the effort to form a union has ended. The delay-prone and contentious NLRB election process is so unfairly skewed in employers’ favor that the vast majority of workers decide to opt out of the process and use a majority-sign-up agreement, often called a card check, instead.
In November 2003 lawmakers introduced the Employee Free Choice Act. Under this legislation, when a majority of employees in a workplace sign cards declaring their desire to form a union, their employer is required to recognize their union. The act also toughens the penalties for violations of employee rights during organizing drives and contract disputes. In an effort led by workers, their unions and allies, 210 members of the House of Representatives signed on to the act (less than eight shy of a majority), as did thirty-eight members of the Senate. The Employee Free Choice Act will be reintroduced as bipartisan legislation this month. Initially, our goal is to re-sign the vast majority of co-sponsors from last session, and by the end of the year we hope to secure majority support in the House and a larger plurality in the Senate.
Building support for the act is a critical battle, and we must show both parties that our effort and outrage will not subside until this bill becomes law. Scores of victimized workers will tell their experience firsthand to their elected leaders. In addition, the labor movement must educate and involve thousands of union activists and staff–and 100,000 rank-and-file union members in strategic areas. Working closely with allies, we must expand our base of support within the religious community and create vehicles for religious groups to include this effort in their work.
The labor movement, while still debating the direction of the AFL-CIO, agrees almost unanimously that the freedom to form unions is the central issue at the heart of our work over the next four years. Progressives outside the labor movement have to own this fight as well. Frankly, I can’t think of a single more significant thing we can do together in this climate. Every effort to frustrate workers trying to exercise their fundamental human right to have a union must be addressed and treated as the moral catastrophe it is. The whole community needs to be aware of employer interference in organizing, leading to a groundswell of moral outrage that inspires people to agitate and disrupt business as usual.
In addition, the labor movement needs to provide leadership that allows and fosters the mass movement of workers to change the climate for organizing. The fact is that ultimately, rank-and-file workers’ willingness or unwillingness to fight for this issue will determine what happens to us. That is why it is critical that anything we do to reform the AFL-CIO must include an expansion of the role of mobilizing workers as its central component.
This is a fight that goes on until we win, because allowing workers to freely form unions is an essential step toward restoring balance to our economic system, lifting people from poverty, strengthening democratic participation and insuring corporate accountability. We must wage this fight because it is the right thing to do and because history will judge our action at this incredibly decisive moment.