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Hope for Labor Dies in Congress March 25, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Democrats, Economy, National Politics, Politics, Republicans, Unions.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

efca77For the past few weeks I have been watching the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) – or “card check” legislation – with growing dismay.  It seemed as if all the talking heads, all the newspaper editorial boards, and even agents of our government (the US Chamber of Commerce) had aligned themselves in opposition to EFCA.  They stood on their podiums and – wrongly – hollered that the EFCA would take a way worker’s rights to Union elections.  They wrung their hands and said that the last thing we needed in our faltering economy was unionization.  Without any actual cases in recent history to back them up – they said that card check would lead to UNION intimidation of workers while the poor, helpless employers could only sit back and do nothing.

Well, today they got what they wanted.  The EFCA was killed – murdered at the hands of Senator Arlen Spector (R) of Pennsylvania.  Spector, who was the only Republican to vote in support of the bill in 2007, announced today that he will oppose the bill, thereby denying the 60-vote Senate ‘supermajority” required to hold off the filibuster.  “The problems of the recession make this a particularly bad time to enact Employees Free Choice legislation,” Specter said.  He suggested instead that Congress take up revisions to the National Labor Relations Act.  “If efforts are unsuccessful to give labor sufficient bargaining power through amendments to the NLRA, then I would be willing to reconsider Employees’ Free Choice legislation when the economy returns to normalcy,” he said.

What Spector didn’t mention is that he is facing a particualrly tough reelection bid in 2010 and THAT is probably the primary reason for hias new opposition.  The Senator, who just turned 79 in February, is facing a potential Republican primary challenge from former Congressman Pat Toomey.  Two polls released today show Spector trailing Toomey by a significant margin and show PA Republicans expressing a desire for a different candidate.  Spector has never been a tower of strength and conviction – he changes his positions frequently, depending on whatever way the wind is blowing – but he always has been a good Republican soldier.  I predict he will get his party’s nomination for Senator, but Pennsylvania is becoming bluer and he may lose ot a Democrat.  Democratic seante-watchers think he is vulnerable.

The rhetoric that business and its interest have employed to defeat the EFCA is stunning.  Most egregious is the falsehood that the EFCA would eliminate worker’s rights to a secret-ballot election.  The legislation does nothing of the sort.  It does, however, give workers the option of certifying a Union and requesting collective bargaining if 51% of employees sign union membership cards. 

The reason that most labor and union supporters believe that card check legislation is necessary is because the current “guarantee’ of the Union election gives management untold time and access to the employees to defeat the Union.  Employees are summoned into secret one-on-one meetings; they are threatened with being fired, with their jobs moving overseas, with the loss of insurance and pension benefits (if they even have them).  Studies by economists such as Cornell University’s Kate Bronfenbrenner indicate that employers routinely try to intimidate workers–and frequently violate the law–in the run-up to NLRB union elections. Bronfenbrenner’s research found high levels of corporate interference and intimidation. In those weeks leading up to the election, employers often use the time to engage in coercive anti-union campaigning to influence workers not to vote for the union. During this period, workers face harassment, intimidation, and the risk of being fired simply for trying to exercise their right to organize.   A study released this month by the Center for Economic Policy Research found similar rates of intimidation. In Dropping the Ax: Illegal Firings During Union Election Campaigns, CEPR found a steep rise in illegal firings of pro-union workers in the 2000s relative to the last half of the 1990s: 1 in 5 union organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their activities in a union election campaign. Since 2000, illegal firings have marred over 1 in 4 NLRB-sponsored union elections, reaching 30 percent of elections in 2007, the study finds.  (Stats reprinted from http://www.southernstudies.org/2009/03/worker-suppression.html).  I have been unable to find a single recent (within 3 years) report of Union intimidation of workers, though I have found plenty of news stories saying it would happen if EFCA is passed.

Interestingly, the threat of the EFCA legislation prompted Starbucks, Costco, and Whole Foods to form the Committee for a Level Playing Field  this week.  The business group advanced the idea as preserving the secret ballot election, but ensuring firm time limits were in place in which to hold elections and would allow union organizers access to workers during working hours.  The secret twiost is that the company could announce and hold its own union de-certifying election at any time.  So, if they didn’t like the way bargaining was going, they would announce that their store might have to close or find another way to subtly threaten the employees, then vote to decertify the Union.  As Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa – an EFCA supporter – put it, “This is just a rule written by management for the benefit of management.” 

Amen, brotha!



Kate Ryan - March 30, 2009

Michael, I am referencing some studies done by AFL-CIO in the early 2000’s and some Canadian studies from the late 1990s. These are the most recent that I could get my hands on. I know the AFL-CIO studies are kind of like the fox in the henhouse, but there it is. There is some incidental evidence that as people feel more economically secure, their support for unionization goes down. Also, many of the occupations in the research I have seen are lower-tier, low-wage jobs; hotel housekeeping, day care workers, food service workers, etc. For Union organizers, however, these people are low-hanging fruit; chances are that they will never see the kind of engagement you are talking about at work, and they will be doomed to poverty-level wages and benefits unless they have collective bargaining.
Keep me informed! I really enjoy hearing from you.

1. Michael - March 30, 2009

Kate. What studies are you referring to? Our results show that 16% of non-union employees would vote ‘yes’ for a union.

As far as the bottom line is concerned, I think successful companies – real companies far from the Himalayas =) .. – understand that building engagement has a huge impact on the bottom line. When people feel safe and listened to and actively engaged in what they are doing, they are going to be more attentive, more productive, show more concern for the well-being of the company, etc.

Kate Ryan - March 26, 2009

You have a point. Studies have shown that over 70% of non-unionized employees would choose a Union if they believed they could. Why do they believe that they can not? Surely, they feel some pressure from management. If management opened a dialogue with employees – and made them actual partners in the success or failure of the company – unionization may not be necessary. But the bottom line bastardizes all noble efforts, and your world where unions are unnecessary is, I’m afraid, a Shangri-La utopia that just does not, and will never, exist.

2. Michael - March 25, 2009

Whether unionization is positive for business, the workforce, or the economy is a conversation best left to someone in a field other than mine. As an I/O Psychologist my interest lies in organizational success through the well-being of employees.

If no other good comes from EFCA, at least it is forcing companies to have an important conversation. In searching for ways to combat unionization, employers are realizing they need engaged employees – who feel communicated to, safe, valued, and a strong commitment to the company. I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter from the legal community about the need for ‘union vulnerability audits’ to ensure a satisfied workplace where unions are viewed unnecessary. Whether or not the EFCA passes I think employees (and organization) will benefit from the discussion.

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