CLEVELAND — The Employee Free Choice Act, aimed at eliminating barriers to workers seeking union representation, is key to any meaningful economic recovery, speakers told more than 100 labor and community activists at a forum here Dec. 16. The forum, sponsored by the North Shore AFL-CIO, was held at Trinity Cathedral in response to a Dec. 5 conference opposing the bill held by the Greater Cleveland Partnership, the local branch of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber, spearheading a national campaign against the bill, has raised over $200 million for the battle, which it calls “Armageddon,” Frank Snyder of the national AFL-CIO said.

But, said Michael Ettlinger of the Center for American Progress, the opposition to employee free choice is extremely shortsighted.

The economy for working people has been in decline since 2000 with growing poverty and unemployment and declining average incomes. The recession was papered over by artificially raised housing values, but now, with that bubble burst, the economy is in general decline and expected to get worse. Credit, even for routine business operations, has dried up, Ettlinger said, and unless companies regain confidence they can sell their goods and services, the entire economy could collapse.

He praised the programs advocated by President-elect Obama to increase mass purchasing power and create jobs.

“The Employee Free Choice Act in this situation is especially important,” Ettlinger said. We not only need jobs, we need good jobs so that people can buy more than food and shelter.”

“This is not just about unions and workers; this bill would improve the general well-being,” he said. “It is about raising American living standards.”

Higher wages paid to union workers add $1 billion to the Cleveland economy, John Ryan, representing Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), said. But the effect of unions is far greater than that because non-union companies raise wages to meet union standards, he noted. Ryan was previously executive secretary of the North Shore AFL-CIO

“Collective bargaining is key to U.S. prosperity,” he said. “That’s why we need this bill.”

Given the well-funded and organized opposition, it will take a big effort to enact the bill, but with Obama and bigger majorities in both houses of Congress, including some Republicans backing it, it could be approved, he said.

In fact, according to David Eckstein, national AFL-CIO assistant director for organizing, labor is hopeful the bill will be an integral part of Obama’s recovery package and is working for it to be adopted in the House in March and in the Senate in May. Speaking at this month’s meeting of delegates to the North Shore labor federation, Eckstein called the Employee Free Choice Act “the biggest bill for working class people in 30 years” and said the labor movement intends to campaign for it in the same way it worked for the election of Obama.