Voters back union rights

Progressive mandate includes Employee Free Choice Act

On Nov. 4 voters rejected an anti-union big business campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act and elected candidates who support the bill. The labor law reform measure is at the top of the unions’ post-election agenda.

Six newly elected senators expressed strong support for the bill, despite the millions of dollars the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and big business outfits spent to try and defeat them. The new senators – Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Rep. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Warner of Virginia and Jeff Merkley of Oregon – could play a key role in passing the legislation. The EFCA would vastly expand the number of unionized workers because it requires recognition of unions at workplaces as soon as a majority of workers sign pledge cards expressing their desire to be represented.

The bill was passed by the House last year but killed by a threatened GOP filibuster in the Senate. President Bush had vowed to veto the bill even if it had passed.

The picture is changed now because of greater progressive majorities elected in the House and Senate and because President-elect Obama, who co-sponsored the EFCA in the Senate, has said he will work to pass it and then sign it once he takes office. Obama, as a presidential candidate, showed his pro-labor credentials when he actually walked picket lines with striking workers including the picket line in front of Chicago’s Congress Hotel where employees have mounted a five-year strike.

A poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates right after the election showed that nearly two thirds of voters believe it is important to pass the EFCA and nearly one-third believe it should be a top priority for Congress. Overall, 55 percent of voters said they approve of labor unions, compared with just 27 percent who say they disapprove.

The labor movement has long viewed the EFCA as critical to rebuilding the U.S. economy. According to David Bonior, chair of American Rights at Work, a group affiliated with the AFL-CIO, “Workers are supporting the Employee Free Choice Act because it gives working people the freedom to make their own decision about whether and how to form a union. Working people are struggling to make ends meet and the Employee Free Choice Act will allow more people to bargain for better wages and bargaining conditions – which in turn helps rebuild our middle class and create an economy that works for all.”

While it is no surprise that support for the EFCA is strong in the labor movement and among its allies there is growing recognition, even in some business circles, that unions play a critical role.

Robert Rubin, Treasury secretary under President Clinton and now director of CitiGroup, recently co-authored an article in the New York Times with Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute. They wrote: “The problem is that the benefits of productivity growth have largely eluded working families. Though productivity grew by some 20 percent from 2000 to 2007, the real income of middle class, working-age households has actually fallen $2,000, down 3 percent.

“One factor behind this outcome is the severely diminished bargaining power of many workers, and here the decline in union membership has played a key role. A true market economy should have true labor markets in which labor and business negotiate as peers. Many years ago, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued that collective bargaining was necessary so workers had the countervailing force to bargain for their fair share of the growth they’re helping to produce. To re-establish that force, workers should be allowed to choose to be unionized or not.”

In addition to allowing workers to make that choice by simple card check, the EFCA would also sharply increase penalties, up to $20,000 per violation, for companies that violate labor laws and would make it easier to get court orders against labor law breakers. The law would also mandate binding arbitration between unions and employers if they cannot reach agreement on an initial contract within 120 days of starting talks.

One of the reasons the ultra-right is so determined to defeat the EFCA is that a larger union movement, it fears, would strengthen the broad progressive movement that helped elect Obama president, solidifying a new progressive direction in American politics.

Even with their current numbers union voters had a powerful impact in this election. Across the battleground states, the Hart poll found, they backed Obama by an impressive 68-30 margin.

The special union “difference” was dramatically shown in other findings:

Obama won among white men who are union members by 18 points while losing that group by 16 points in the general public.

Union military veterans voted for Obama by a 25 point margin. He lost among that group in the general public by nine points.

Obama even won among union gun owners by a 12 point margin while losing that group in the general public by 25 points.