CLEVELAND — Dozens of activists committed to workplace fairness and economic recovery gathered here March 7 for a three-hour speakers training session to promote the Employee Free Choice Act.

The event, held at Trinity Cathedral, brought together 54 representatives of labor, small businesses, students, professionals, clergy and retirees at the initiative of Cleveland Jobs With Justice and the North Shore (Cleveland area) AFL-CIO Federation of Labor.

Fran Tobin, Midwest director of Jobs With Justice, opened the discussion stating that years of hard work resulted in the November election of President Barack Obama and a more worker-friendly Congress.

“Now we have the opportunity to turn our country around.”

The Employee Free Choice Act, he said, “is one key central piece of the movement for social and economic justice” and restores the right, originally provided by the 1935 Wagner Act, for “workers to organize for a better life without harassment and intimidation” from their bosses.

The effect of the bill would be to raise living standards, restore purchasing power and give a huge boost to economic recovery, Tobin said.

Obama has repeatedly cited this as the reason for his strong support for the bill and called for its early passage. The bill was introduced into Congress on March 10.

Despite the bill’s impact on economic recovery, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched a heavily financed campaign with hysterical overtones to defeat it, Tobin said.

Chamber Vice President Randel Johnson called the fight “a firestorm bordering on Armageddon.”

Bernard Marcus, founder and CEO of Home Depot, has called passage of the measure “the demise of a civilization.”

Marcus went further and said, according to widely circulated reports, “If a retailer has not gotten involved in this, if he has not spent money on this election, if he has not sent money to Norm Coleman (the Republican trying to hold onto the Senate seat he lost in Nov.) and all these other guys, they should be shot. They should be thrown out of their goddamn jobs.”

Although union membership is closely correlated with U.S. prosperity and living standards, short-sighted corporate opposition to unions has prevailed throughout U.S. history, Tobin said.

The corporations never accepted the Wagner Act and other New Deal measures, fought them in court and, when that failed, even tried to organize a military coup against President Franklin Roosevelt, he said.

After World War II, the effort to weaken the right of workers to organize and bargain for higher wages continued with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and escalated in 1981 when Pres. Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers, gave a green light to union-busting and launched the economic decline that now has broken out in full force.

The Employee Free Choice Act will correct that situation, he said, by providing penalties for company threats or coercion of employees who seek to join a union. The bill would also give workers the right to choose either majority sign-up or a government-run election if they wish to join a union and would refer deadlocked negotiations for a first contract to an independent mediator.

Under current conditions without fear of meaningful penalties, companies frequently fire and discipline workers who seek to organize. In addition, the companies decide the means by which workers can choose to be represented and, even if they are forced to recognize a union, simply go through the motions of bargaining and, in 30% of the cases, never sign a contract, Tobin said.

Tobin said the bill now has 214 sponsors in the House and 39 in the Senate, mostly Democrats, but including some Republicans.

He called on participants in the training session to be “ambassadors for the bill,” to build broad community support and reach the public through speaking engagements and the mass media. Participants broke into small groups and practiced communicating what they had learned.

At the end of the meeting, Debbie Kline, coordinator of Cleveland Jobs With Justice, announced plans for a rally under the slogan: “Employee Free Choice Act = Recovery” in Cleveland Public Square, March 30, at 4 p.m.