There are no rights without organization

The Portland (Maine) Press Herald in a recent editorial claims that the “Employee Free Choice Act opens the door to coercion.” The act, recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, with the support of Maine’s two congressmen, isn’t about coercion. It is about workers’ rights.

Article 20 of the United Nations 1948 Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” This right is explained in the UN’s International Labor Organization Convention No. 87, “Freedom of Association and the Right to Organize,” which establishes the right of all workers to form and join organizations of their own choosing without prior authorization. Freedom of association is also promised under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

However, it doesn’t matter what’s in the Declaration of Human Rights or the U.S. Constitution because there are no rights without organization. Freedom of association does not exist in a vacuum. If we are to exercise freedom of association as workers, either the power of the government or the power of the unions must protect our rights.

For example, during World War I, the federal government went into the workplace and held elections for worker representatives to sit on government-recognized Works Councils. The government assumed that if workers didn’t have the organization to bargain collectively, they didn’t have any rights. So the government guaranteed that workers would be organized and represented through elected Works Councils. These councils bargained with employers and if employers dragged their heels, the Works Council appealed their grievances to the War Labor Board, which had the authority to adjudicate them.

One of the lessons of the Works Councils is that to be self-governing, people need organization. The question is: which individuals will represent us in our government — not whether we’ll have a government.

Put another way: every two years we vote for people to represent us in Congress. When we vote, we are voting to see which individuals will represent us. We do not vote to see if we want a Congress because that has long been accepted by society as a given. Everyone knows that we are voting to decide who will represent us in Congress.

Similarly, during World War I the government didn’t hold elections to see if workers wanted representation. They held elections to see who would sit on the Works Councils. The government assumed representation, and in so doing upheld the necessity of organization.

But that is not how it works in the United States today.

Under the present law if you work in an unorganized facility and think you need a union, you call a union and ask for help. An organizer comes and explains to you the benefits of belonging to a union. You are told to get people to sign union authorization cards and when enough are signed, the National Labor Relations Board will supervise an election to see if a majority of your co-workers want a union to represent them in bargaining with your employer. Early on in the election campaign process, the company almost always hires a union-busting law firm to advise it on how to keep the union out. Workers are then inundated with written propaganda, their supervisors’ verbal barrage and often firings, aimed at scaring workers so they won’t vote for the union.

When the boss tells workers, “It’s not in your best interests to join a union,” that is akin to a warden telling prisoners, “Lights out at 10.” If bosses prevent workers from organizing, they are denying them the U.S. Constitution and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, both of which hold out the promise of freedom of association.

Yes, the government should require elections for union officers, but a person’s signature is ample demonstration that they want representation.

The Employee Free Choice Act is a step in the right direction. A direction not to be denigrated but celebrated.

Peter Kellman (pkellman@psouth.net) is president of the Southern Maine Labor Council - AFL-CIO, which represents 20 local unions with a combined membership of more than 9,000 members. This article is reprinted from the Portland Press Herald with permission of the author.