Imagine an election in which one candidate could threaten your job if you voted for the other side. That candidate could campaign as much, and whenever, they wish, while the opponent was limited to speaking only during coffee breaks or after work. Suppose that candidate could even decide when the election would take place -- calling the vote only after being certain that it would go in their favor?
Those conditions don't sound much like a free and fair election -- but they are just the situation employees can be subjected to when they choose whether or not to unionize. It's those sorts of inequities that the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is intended to remedy.
Under current law, when a majority of workers indicate they want union representation, management gets to decide when the certification election will take place. Meanwhile, the company can campaign against the union in the workplace by holding workplace meetings, distributing literature, and even meeting privately with employees one-on-one. Such campaigning often includes heavy doses of intimidation and threats of job loss. In fact, employers illegally fire union supporters in 25 percent of organizing campaigns. Meanwhile, union organizers may not enter the workplace; employees can only campaign during breaks, or before and after work. And even if 100 percent of workers indicate by signing authorizations that they wish to be represented by a union, the company is not required to recognize and bargain with it. In short, employers are playing with a stacked deck.
The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) currently before Congress would increase penalties for violating workers' First Amendment right to form a union and to negotiate a first contract and would provide mediation and arbitration to assist management and unions through that negotiation process. Finally, it would allow a majority of employees to establish a union by signing authorization cards. This provides an alternative to the current election process, which is subject to intimidation, firings and other disparities favoring a company's anti-union campaign.
It is this last provision that some business leaders emphasize in their attempt to defeat EFCA, claiming that under majority sign-up, workers would be subjected to intimidation from the union, rather than being protected by the free choice of an election. The history of employees' efforts to band together for better working conditions tells a different story. Time and again, union supporters have been threatened, reassigned to less desirable jobs, or simply fired. No one who has been harassed with a barrage of threats of firing or reassignment unless they oppose unionization is making a genuinely free choice.
Majority sign-up already has a proven track record. It has been used successfully at several large firms, including AT&T Wireless. In this case, both the company and the Communications Workers of America agreed to remain neutral during the organizing campaign -- allowing more than 17,000 workers to freely express their preference for union representation.
Remember, the EFCA does not require workers to use majority sign-up. Employees are still free to conduct an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board if they prefer. But faced with a company determined to deter employees from organizing, EFCA could provide workers with another option to help level the playing field.
Over the past century, organized labor has helped bring prosperity and respect for the dignity of work to our nation. Unions campaigned to end to child labor, enabling America's children to develop the knowledge and skills that have built our country into an economic powerhouse. They gave us the 40-hour work week and fair compensation when the work load requires overtime, negotiated decent benefits (vacation time, sick pay, pensions, health insurance, etc.), and insisted on workplace safety.
These advances have benefited not just union members, but their families and communities, as well as workers who profit from non-union businesses offering comparable wages and benefits to compete for qualified employees.
Union representation is a hard-won American tradition. It deserves protection and encouragement, especially in times of economic crisis. Union contracts bring fair wages and benefits to those who will rebuild our infrastructure, provide essential products and services, and spend their earnings back in their own communities. By giving a fair shake to organized labor, the Employee Free Choice Act can play an important part in America's economic revitalization--and that will benefit us all.
Fleisher is an educator, member of the Virginia Education Association Fitz Turner Commission for Human Relations and Civil Rights and life member of the NEA.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Virginia Forum. 3/09