To turn economy around, more union members needed

WASHINGTON — When you approach the national offices of the AFL-CIO in the shadow of the Washington Monument here your eye is caught by the enormous banner draped over the front of the building, bulging outward as the wind whips it from behind. Letters that spell “We are turning around America” are so large they can be read from a block away.

Leaders of both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor federations, still thrilled over labor’s role in helping elect Barack Obama and more pro-labor members of the Congress, told a gathering of labor journalists here Nov. 21 that now there are promises to keep. Arlene Holt Baker, the AFL-CIO’s executive vice president, said, “We have to give them the support they need to make the tough choices. We need an economic recovery package that will turn around this broken economy for workers with good jobs, green jobs, re-regulation of our financial system and health care.”

She warned, however, that “no matter what else we do, it won’t result in real shared prosperity unless we restore workers’ freedom to form unions so they can bargain for a better life with better wages and benefits, unless we win passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.”

The bill puts real teeth in the laws that are supposed to bar companies from intimidating, harassing and firing workers who want to form unions. It allows workers to form their union when a majority signs cards indicating that’s what they desire.

The focus of the Nov. 21 “round-table” discussion with labor journalists here was the main arguments that support passage of the new law.

“For too long, workers haven’t had the power to get their fair share of the value they create,” said Bob Kelly, director of the Change to Win campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act. “As a result, they are struggling, they are finding it harder and harder to stay in their homes, pay for health care and save for retirement. This, in turn, wrecks our economy.

“While workers drag themselves exhausted into a second job just to pay the bills, CEOs, on average, are earning $6,153 an hour. In Japan CEOs earn 11 times what the average worker gets and in Germany they earn 15 times what the average worker gets,” Kelly said, “while here in the United States they earn 411 times what the average worker gets.”

Kelly said that when the Employee Free Choice Act becomes law his Change-to-Win federation will, within 18 months, add 5 million workers to the membership roles of its constituent unions.

“That will mean,” he added, “5 million people will be earning, on average, 22 percent more than they earned before and that 900,000 people will be lifted out of poverty.”

Kenneth Zinn, who chairs the AFL-CIO’s department for strategic research, said, “Simply put, unions make people’s lives better. Communities with strong unions have higher standards of living for everyone.”

Speakers said the law will fix a broken system that, according to Zinn, “leaves out more than 60 million workers who don’t have a union but would join one if they could. In our company-dominated system, workers can be intimidated, coerced and even fired by their bosses for trying to form a union. A decision that should be in the hands of workers is instead in the hands of corporate executives.”

Liz Cattaneo, communications director of American Rights at Work, outlined results of what she said were focus group suggestions regarding the proposed law.

“We need to talk about this in an economic frame,” she said. “Americans are hungry for solutions to fix what ails Main Street and the Employee Free Choice Act is the perfect solution. They are also angry about outrageous compensation for CEOs.”

Her group is running new ads on national television. One ad shows a worker being called into the boss’s office. The boss, flashing an evil looking smile, tells the worker he is doing a good job, deserves a raise and deserves better benefits. As he shakes hands with the boss, he wakes from his dream finding that he is actually holding the paw of his golden retriever who wants to jump into bed with him and his wife. A voice tells him that if he thinks he’s going to get wage and benefit increases that way he’s dreaming and then calls for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

jwojcik@pww.org