The American labor movement has always been defined by our fights and our struggles.

In the early 1900s when workers were being forced to work an ungodly number of hours every day, it was the labor movement (starting right here in Chicago’s Haymarket Square) that began the fight for the eight-hour day.

In the 1930s, when riots and violence were the norm instead of the exception for labor-management relations, it was the labor movement that pushed for the passage of the Wagner Act, thereby creating the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an institution, ostensibly, created to ensure that workers could choose to form unions and bargain collectively without fear and intimidation from their employer.

In the 1960s, when remnants of Jim Crow laws were disenfranchising workers of color from legally exercising their right to vote, it was the labor movement that added the resources and political muscle for the passage of the Civil Rights Law.

In 2004, the fight that will define this labor movement is the battle to reclaim the right to organize — allowing workers to choose to join or form a union without fear or intimidation from their employer.

On paper the right is there, but in practice it is long gone. The secret war that employers wage against workers trying to form a union has taken its toll on workers and communities all throughout America.

When working men and women join together in unions, we make our communities better places to live and work. We close the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, and we bring more equality to the workplace.

When workers have a real voice on the job, they stand a greater chance of doing better for themselves and for their families.

Recent surveys suggest that 42 million workers throughout America would join a union tomorrow if they could. Why? Because they understand that union workers tend to earn 26 percent more than non-union workers and are more likely to receive health and pension benefits. They understand that unions fight every day for social justice, improved health and safety benefits, promote fair trade and negotiate contracts that lift the standards of all workers.

Sadly, today, they will not get that chance. When workers choose to form a union, employers declare war. It’s a war of intimidation, humiliation and harassment in which over 10,000 workers each year are fired. It’s a war in which corporations have an overwhelming advantage.

Now the NLRB, the institution empowered to protect a worker’s right to choose a union, is taking another step backwards. It is reviewing the use of “card-check” recognition — a process which fairly expedites workers’ ability to join a union. There is no doubt that this action by the NLRB is in retaliation for the AFL-CIO’s push for the “Employee Free Choice Act.” Sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Congressman George Miller (D-Calif.), this legislation benefits workers seeking to join a union.

First, this Kennedy-Miller legislation would validate a union election where a majority of workers have signed cards stating their desire for union representation. Second, if the workers do gain union representation and cannot reach an agreement within 90 days of their recognition, federal mediation would be imposed. If the mediator cannot resolve the dispute then it would go to binding arbitration. Finally, if a union worker is illegally fired for union activity then the employer would be fined up to $20,000 per violation.

The passage of this legislation is one of the key elements in the AFL-CIO’s Voice@Work program, supported in its entirety by the Chicago Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. In fact, the program was kicked off here in Chicago on June 15 at the CFL’s Voice@Work Workshop.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, when asked about workers and unions, responded: “If I were a worker in America, the first thing I would do would be to join a union.” Sadly, compare this belief to the policies of President George W. Bush.

The freedom to join a union is every bit an American right as the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. Together, we can make sure that corporate America gets the message.

By standing together, workers, community, religious and elected leaders can stop the war in the workplace and put America’s values to work — for our families, our future and our communities.

Timothy Leahy is secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor. This article is reprinted from the September issue of the CFL Federation News, www.cflonline.org, by permission of the author.

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