Americans today are working harder than ever, and too often finding that the secure and stable middle-class life their parents counted on is falling further and further out of reach for them and their children.
Story after story remind us just how much in the past working Americans have fallen behind in the past eight years. For those who have struggled during this difficult period, it comes as no surprise that median household income in 2007 was $1,175 less than it was in 2000, while basic family expenses rose $4,600 in that same period. These families don’t need to be lectured with statistics — they feel the middle-class squeeze every day in their paychecks and checkbooks.
Now — with a new president and a new, strong progressive majority in Congress — these workers are hoping that Washington will at last be an incubator of good policies that create opportunity, reward work not just wealth, and help restore the middle class. That’s why it’s so important that the 111th Congress pass the Employee Free Choice Act.
We know that one of the lessons of the Greatest Generation remains that when workers can join a union, the middle class is strengthened. The gains workers made in the last century would never have been possible had union organizers not marched and pushed and gone door to door, shop to shop, to stand up for their fellow workers.
Workers in unions earn 30 percent higher wages on average, and are 60 percent more likely to have employer-covered health insurance. The question is what we will do to empower workers in this new century — and it should begin with The Employee Free Choice Act’s common sense, fundamentally fair mission of making it easier for men and women to join a union in their workplace. The legislation would give workers a fair and direct path to form unions through majority sign-up, help employees secure a contract with their employer in a reasonable period of time and toughen penalties against employers who break the law.
Powerful, entrenched opponents of the legislation have made a variety of false statements, arguing that the bill will take away workers’ right to a secret ballot election, expose workers to intimidation and harassment or hurt the economy.
These arguments are untrue and especially dubious because they have no reliable data to back them up. Too often, these objections come from the same people and groups that have enriched and protected Wall Street over Main Street — among them those who opposed ideas like minimum wage increases and family medical leave, which history has proven are mainstream, commonsense policies.
Still, let’s not let this debate spiral downward into name-calling. Consider the source, but also consider the facts.
Honest and well-meaning people can differ, and many small business owners in particular have asked me how this legislation would affect their businesses. I don’t think they have much to worry about, for three key reasons.
First, in the decades when our labor laws protected workers’ free choice to join unions, small businesses thrived and America built the strongest middle class in the world. The evidence shows that our nation’s economy and overall productivity grew when American workers had an ability to share in the prosperity of our country and their companies.
Second, the Employee Free Choice Act makes no changes to the small business exemptions under our nation’s labor laws. Small businesses employing an estimated four million American workers would still be exempt and completely unaffected.
Third, the economic benefits of unions to all businesses, large and small, are well-established. Unions help reduce costs associated with turnover because they give employees a voice in the workplace to speak up for changes, rather than simply quitting or being fired. Employment security fuels collaboration and information sharing, leading to higher productivity.
The research also shows that union firms are just as productive and successful as non-union firms. A U.S. Small Business Administration report, for example, indicated that small business bankruptcy rates are lower in states with high unionization rates than they are in states where fewer workers have a voice.
In an ironic twist, the actual threat to small businesses may come from the groups fighting the Employee Free Choice Act most vigorously — the big corporations whose very business strategies have consistently hurt small businesses across the country by squeezing small businesses out of the marketplace.
I believe that by helping put more money in working people’s pockets, the Employee Free Choice Act will strengthen our economy for everyone, including workers and customers of America’s small businesses.
Americans spoke powerfully on Election Day, demanding that Washington find bipartisan solutions to our economic problems. On Main Street, we need to do the same with policies that restore opportunity in our country and work for everyone. Passing the Employee Free Choice Act would be a big downpayment on that fairness agenda.
John F. Kerry is the junior senator from Massachusetts and former chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee.