NEWS ANALYSIS Getting closer than ever to majority signup

Speculation in the major media about the alleged “dropping” of majority signup from the Employee Free Choice Act, coming now as the nation is on the verge of radical labor law reform, must be viewed, at the very least, with extreme skepticism. The speculation tells us little about what is really at stake in the fight around the legislation.

For starters, the pundits make it seem that majority signup is something new when the exact opposite is the case. It has been the law of the land since the Great Depression.

The majority signup provision of the Employee Free Choice Act does not create majority signup or “card check,” as it is sometimes called. It simply guarantees that workers, not company propaganda or scare tactics, become the determining factor in deciding whether they are represented by a union. It says, in effect, that as soon as a majority signs those cards they get what they want — a union. That’s the way it was when the National Labor Relations Act, also called the Wagner Act, became law in the1930s.

Employers were able to amend that with the Taft-Hartley Act after World War II. Taft- Hartley enabled them to delay the workers’ choice with a so-called “secret ballot election,” whose terms the employers control. They use that delay period, which can last anywhere from a month to several years, to intimidate, harass and fire union supporters.

The Employee Free Choice Act’s majority-signup provision amends labor law again — this time to give back to workers, not employers, the choice of whether they will belong to a union.

A recent article in the New York Times, therefore, which said senators were “dropping” card check because of concern by some that elections are “fairer,” totally misses the point.

Some of what was missed was addressed by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, who said, after the Times article appeared, “Majority signup is the best way for workers to have the right to choose a voice at their workplace. The Employee Free Choice Act is going through the usual legislative process and we expect a vote on the majority signup provision (i.e. the provision that ends the bosses’ ability to delay recognition of the union) in the final bill or by amendment in both houses of Congress.”

More of what was missed in the Times article was later addressed by John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, who said, “A bill will be signed into law this year giving workers — not their bosses — the choice about how to form a union.” (The issue, for workers, is just that: their choice, not the boss’s choice.)

There are many compromises on the table in Congress. The compromises are about how you make it the workers’ choice. Majority signup, unions say, is the best way. Some feel, however, you can have an election that really gives workers the choice — one that the companies can’t control. The result has been discussion of numerous paths to that goal including mailing of the authorization cards directly to the National Labor Relations Board, mailing ballots that say “yes” or “no” to union representation to the NLRB, requiring an election within five days, allowing the union onto company property to prevent anti-union company propaganda, forbidding companies from holding mandatory attendance at anti-union meetings, etc. All of these “compromises” are about finding a way to stop company subversion of long-standing U.S. labor law and about finding a way to get the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster against imminent radical reform of U.S. labor law.

The labor movement is not compromising on key principles: the choice must be made by the workers, and there must, after workers choose a union, be meaningful penalties for companies that break the law.

The pundits also focus far too much on speculation about the technical aspects of the legislative process surrounding the Employee Free Choice and not nearly enough on the profound implications of the struggle.

In December 2008 and January of this year, during the talks about bailouts for the auto companies, the Chamber of Commerce beat the drums about how “unions drove the auto companies off the cliff.”

Republican strategy memos at that time said, “Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor. This is a precursor to card check.”

Bill Samuels, legislative director for the AFL-CIO, said at that time, “I get the sense that this is more important to them than even taxes or regulation. This is about power. And the business community is not going to give up power willingly.”

Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott said, last October, when discussing the EFCA at a meeting with analysts, “We like driving the car and we’re not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us.”

And then, there’s the part the pundits almost always miss. Even winning democracy and justice at the workplace is not the whole story with this legislation.

Big business understands that strengthening unions will push up wages and fix the busted economy in such a way that company profits are spread to places where companies would prefer they are not spread — to workers. The CEOs will get less. Corporate power will be reigned in. The new progressive majority in Congress will grow larger.

“Unions don’t spend money to elect Republicans,” Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said recently. “They spend money to elect Democrats. From our perspective, this [the EFCA] would have devastating consequences.”

Sweeney’s prediction shows the confidence of the labor movement. The bill has majority support but just needs to get a vote on the Senate floor. An unprecedented campaign involving ground troops, money, advertising and mass rallies has reached locations across the country.

The pundits see this as a tit for tat fight between some labor leaders and some big business guys. It is so much more than that.

Labor and big business both know that passage of the Employee Free Choice Act means a far more organized working class. That, both know, means at the very least, that the economic and political reforms of this era will last a very long time and that those reforms can well signal the beginning of something even bigger.

jwojcik @ pww.org