Out-of-control costs for healthcare, housing, gasoline and college tuition are putting an ever tighter squeeze on American families’ budgets. Congress can, and should, take action to relieve the pressure. Let’s start by strengthening employees’ rights to freely form labor unions.
Research has shown unionized firms to be more productive than their nonunion rivals. And increasingly, unions are adopting flexible approaches that aim for common ground with employers to solve problems and develop new business opportunities. In Milwaukee union employees at Harley-Davidson crafted a plan with managers that both groups credit with increasing productivity and keeping the fabled motorcycle made in America. In California a collaboration at Kaiser Permanente has enabled managers and staff at the $28 billion healthcare firm to overcome what could have been a financial disaster without sacrificing patient care. Since launching its partnership with the Service Employees International Union, six other international unions and twenty-nine locals, Kaiser has boosted staff retention and patient satisfaction while reducing workplace injuries by 20 percent.
Given their potential to help iron out workplace problems and increase competitiveness, it is tragic that many managers insist on treating unions as threats. Employer intimidation tactics have proliferated dramatically. In the 1950s the National Labor Relations Board acted on hundreds of unionbusting complaints every year. In the 1990s the NLRB received more than 20,000 unionbusting complaints every year.
Along with antiunion firings and discrimination, unionbusters use other outrageous tactics to undermine their employees’ freedom to unionize. One North Carolina pork-producing company paid employees to spy on co-workers suspected of organizing. Cintas, a uniform-rental and laundry company, had its supervisors follow employees into restrooms to make sure they weren’t talking about unions. Wal-Mart, of course, maintains an antiunion SWAT team that bursts into action as soon as it suspects organizing activity.
We don’t need employers waging class war in the workplace. That’s why I’ve introduced the Employee Free Choice Act (HR 1696), which has the bipartisan backing of 207 Representatives and forty-one Senators. The bill strengthens organizing rights in three key ways. To begin with, if a majority of employees sign union cards, they get a union. Second, either party in an opening contract negotiation can request mediation or binding arbitration within a reasonable time period. (This is important because often–in about one-third of cases–workers win union representation but remain without a contract after a year of bargaining.) Finally, the act would stiffen penalties for labor-law violations.
As increasing numbers of workers collaborate with management through unions, we can preserve more middle-class jobs while making the economy more competitive. America’s best employers already understand this. It is time the rest do, too.