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December 29th, 2008


by Ed Gold

Sen John Ensign: Not a fan of stronger unions.

A tough, highly partisan battle is shaping up in the new Congress to determine whether labor unions can make a real comeback following the 2008 elections.

The struggle will be over the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), backed by labor and considered the death knell of the Republic by those who hate the union movement.

During the recent Senate debate on the auto industry bailout, the anti-union sentiment among Republicans, particularly those from states with non-union foreign auto plants, became conspicuously pronounced. A majority of Republicans would not support the bailout unless UAW workers would agree to accept wage levels which exist at non-union auto plants.

Unions, which have been on the skids in the U.S since the mid-fifties, believe the Free Choice Act would go a long way towards helping unions organize and win bargaining rights. The Republicans feel the same way about EFCA, given their vehemence against it.

John McCain calls the act a “threat to democracy.”

The Wall Street Journal says it’s “unconstitutional.”

Sen John Ensign of Nebraska calls it “the most heinous piece of legislation in history.”

So what would the EFCA do?

Currently, 30 percent of workers at a company must sign a union petition or fill out union cards, at which point the National Labor Relations Board calls for a secret ballot election. Union organizers have found that employers have strong weapons to discourage a pro-union vote. Management usually hires an outside professional organization to fight the union. Employees are required to attend employer lectures against unionization and, more pertinent, personnel beholden to management are permitted to make the anti-union case to workers under their supervision.

A study at Cornell University, analyzing hundreds of union organizing campaigns, turned up these results:

*In 92 percent of the elections, employers require workers to listen to anti-union lectures.

*In 72 percent of elections, employers require supervisors to argue against unionization.

*75 percent of companies hire outside consultants to sell the anti-union message.

*In 25 percent of union organizing efforts, employers fire union organizers.

*In about one third of the elections won by unions, employers will not agree to a collective bargaining agreement, the current NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) does little and the union effort is left in no-man’s-land.

Under the Free Choice Act, three conditions would help union activity:

*A union would be recognized by NLRB if a majority of workers signed union cards. The union, if it wished, could also approve a secret ballot.

*If the union signed up a majority of workers, employers would have 120 days to recognize the union and engage in collective bargaining. If the union was still not recognized, the NLRB can appoint an arbitrator who is empowered to work out a collective bargaining agreement binding on both union and employer.

*Employers found guilty of unlawful termination of pro-union workers would be required to pay triple-time back pay.

No wonder the Republicans are on the verge of hysteria. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, sees EFCA as putting “American workers on the road to forced unionization.”

A collection of holier-than-thou anti-choice groups have poured millions of dollars into the campaign to stop EFCA, including the Chamber of Commerce and organizations called Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, Employee Freedom Action Committee and Freedom’s Watch.

The EFCA has already made its appearance in Congress, in 2007. It passed the House by 241-185, mostly on a party vote. It failed in the Senate to achieve closure, with all Democrats present and two Independents voting in favor, and only a single Republican, Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, backing the closure vote, while 48 of his party colleagues voted no.

The issue will surely come before the new Congress, but obtaining closure will still be difficult. The Democrats can count on 57 or 58 votes and probably Spector, but they will still be short of the 60 needed to prevent a filibuster.

There have been of course a few other changes since the election. The new President supports the union move as does his new Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, who says the EFCA “strengthens the right to organize and opposes any effort to dismantle the 40-hour week and overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act.”

Actually, union activity has shown a healthy upturn nationally over the past two years, increasing membership in 2007 by more than 300,000 and by almost 600,000 in 2008, the first increases since 1979. But only about 13 percent of the U.S. work force is unionized, down from more than 30 per cent in the 1950’s.

Solid union increases this past year in California (often a bellwether state) as well as recent union victories in Chicago and a narrow win at the world’s largest hog-processing plant in North Carolina give hope to union forces that the tide really may be turning.

A poll taken by the Peter Hart organization indicates that 57 million workers would join a union if given the opportunity. For good reason and despite the hostile environment, according to UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment: union members average $2.50 an hour more than non-union workers and “are far more likely to have access to benefits like retirement plans, medical insurance and paid leave than their non-union counterparts.”

Whether Obama, Solis and the 2008 election results make any impression on Senate Republicans remains to be seen. The downside is that Republican moderates have become virtually extinct. But on the other hand, ten GOP senators did vote for the auto bailout. So times may be a-changing.

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