To turn economy around, more union members are necessary

WASHINGTON, D.C. – When you approach the building that houses the national offices of the AFL-CIO in the shadow of the Washington Monument here the first thing you notice is the enormous banner draped over the front of the structure, bulging outward as the wind whips it from behind. The letters that spell “We are turning around America” are so large they can be read from a block away. Indeed, the nation’s labor movement is still celebrating the most massive electoral effort in its history which, it says, helped win a historic victory on Nov. 4, sending Barack Obama to the White House and electing a stronger pro-worker majority of senators and representatives.

The leaders of both major labor federations, the 10 million-member AFL-CIO and the five million-member Change to Win coalition, are unanimously warning, however, that for American workers, the election victory isn’t the end of the fight.

Leaders of both labor federations told a gathering of labor journalists here Nov. 21 that now, our elected leaders need to tackle the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. “They have to keep their promises to the people who voted for them,” declared Arlene Holt-Baker, the AFL-CIO’s executive vice president. Holt-Baker, the first African-American ever elected to that top-level position in the U.S. labor movement, 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.”

The labor movement is warning, however, that even this ambitious program will not bring about the real economic fix that is needed. As Holt-Baker put it, “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.”

To this end the nation’s unions have turned their attention to a campaign to win passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

The bill, essentially, 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 sign cards indicating that’s what they desire. It also requires arbitration to end corporate foot-dragging when workers try to get a first contract. In short, unions see the Employee Free Choice Act as the way to level the playing field that today leaves all the power in the hands of corporations rather than workers. They see it as the key not just to good wages, benefits, a voice in the workplace and as key to a bigger political voice for workers but also as essential to fixing the economy. It is only through the benefits that will follow from passage of the law, they argue, that the economic imbalance will be corrected. It is that imbalance, they say, that caused the current economic crisis in the first place.

Union leaders are hopeful that the drive to win passage of the new law will succeed. In 2007 the House actually passed the measure and it had majority support in the Senate, but a Republican minority killed it with a filibuster, emboldened by President Bush’s vow to veto the legislation. Labor leaders note that now there is an elected Congress that has promised to back the bill and a president who will take office on Jan. 20 who has promised to sign it into law.

At the Nov. 21 “round-table” discussion with labor journalists here they talked about the main arguments that need to be made in the fight for 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, CEO’s, on average, are earning $6,153 an hour. In Japan CEO’s 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, be able to add 5 million workers to the membership roles of its constituent unions.

“That will mean,” he added, “five 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. The biggest social problems in America,” he declared, “result from low wages that American workers are earning. The Employee Free Choice Act, then, is the solution to our main economic and social problems.”

Kenneth Zinn, who chairs the AFL-CIO’s department for strategic research, said, “Simply put, unions make people’s lives better. The freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life is a basic human right, and it makes a difference. Union members make 30 percent more than workers who don’t have unions. They’re 59 percent more likely to have health benefits and four times more likely to have pensions. Communities with strong unions have higher standards of living for everyone.

While speakers at the “round-table” saw the Employee Free Choice Act as critical to allowing workers to wage the battle to get the fair share of the value they create and critical to enabling them to make their lives better they also put forward other reasons they say the new law is needed.

Not the least of these reasons is that passage will fix what is now a broken labor law 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. But under existing law,” he said, “corporations essentially have a veto over the process. 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.”

He also stressed that the Employee Free Choice Act will benefit many more people than just the workers who are trying to form a union. “When more workers are in unions, workers have the strength in numbers they need to demand good wages and benefits across communities and industries. That helps all workers bargain for better contracts and counterbalance corporate power.”

Liz Cattaneo, communications director of American Rights at Work, a national labor policy and advocacy group, focused on tactics her group says are important in the fight to win passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. She outlined results of what she said were focus group suggestions about what mattered to workers and to the public, in general, regarding the new 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. The other thing that came out of our focus groups is that we must tap into the anger abouting the outrageous compensation for CEO’s and how that compares to what little workers get. In terms of fairness,” she said, “when we say CEO’s have contracts isn’t it only fair that workers should have contracts.”

Her group has already acted on the focus group findings with a number of new ads already running 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 over 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.

The messages everyone involved in the campaign for the Employee Free Choice act seems to agree on are that its passage would mean long term shared prosperity, that it is the key to building an economy that works for everyone and that it is essential to the survival of the American dream.