The battle started before the legislation actually got to Capitol Hill. As soon as corporate America sensed that organized labor was going to push for labor law reform, they unleashed the dogs of war. Warning of a threat to the rights of workers, corporate America has alleged that the propo¥sed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) will be damaging to workers and to the economy. To add insult to injury, opponents of EFCA have even enlisted the likes of former Senator George McGovern and the Reverend Al Sharpton in their ranks to challenge the legislation.
The core of EFCA is the idea that workers in the US have, in effect, lost the right to join or form labor unions. While there are laws on the books that give workers the formal right to join or form unions, the reality is that, particularly over the last 30 years, such rights have been seriously weakened as employers—often with the support of various levels of government—have gone on the offensive to undermine worker self-organization. Employers do this through overt acts of intimidation, such as firing union activists, or by holding meetings with individuals or groups of workers, and laying out their lies about unions and unionization.
Opponents of EFCA, apparently including some tried and true liberals, seem to act as if the choice by a worker to join or form a union takes place on a level playing field with employers. Actually the opposite is true. The power dynamics that are inherent in an employer/employee relationship necessarily throw off the balance. In other words, even if an employer says nothing more than that she or he opposes a union, that statement can be interpreted by workers—who, by definition within a capitalist society, have no control over the workplace—as a reason to fear such a choice. Thus, a worker who is dependent on an employer for a job will consider the possible negative consequences of unionization if the employer states their opposition. Fear and uncertainty climbs geometrically when acts of intimidation are added. For these reasons it is often surprising that workers take the risk every day to move forward to form or join unions.
EFCA’s most controversial component revolves around what is known as “card check recognition.” There is nothing new about this since it already happens, but what is new is that EFCA would permit card check recognition irrespective of an employer’s view on the subject. Card check recognition means that a union can get individual workers to sign membership cards and, once they achieve support from more than 50 percent of the relevant workforce, they can request that the employer offer what is called “voluntary recognition.” If the employer agrees, then the union begins collective bargaining. But if the employer does not agree, the workers are forced to go through an oftentimes lengthy process of preparing for and then conducting an election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This entire process can drag out workers’ efforts and often discourage them. EFCA would leave the choice of card check vs. election in the hands of the workers.
Passage of EFCA has become a real priority for organized labor, but you would not really know that unless you are very close to the unions. It is not that unions have had limited air time on this, but rather that they have not treated this as a mass cause celebre to which working people and their allies should be rallied. Union members are being encouraged to get involved, which is important, but the passage of EFCA is generally not being linked to other critical social justice issues like healthcare reform and fighting foreclosures. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has, to its credit, done some outreach to make such connections. But, because of the activities of its leadership in derailing one of their own local unions (United Healthcare Workers-West)—see “Dissent in Big Purple” in Issue 31 of Left Turn—and interfering in the internal affairs of another union (UNITE HERE), SEIU’s ability to inspire is limited at best.
Organized labor is, for the most part, treating EFCA as it does most other pieces of legislation. It focuses on the insider route, which means lobbying and public relations. Yet what is being missed is a tremendous opportunity to discuss workers’ rights and economic justice. The ability of workers to join or form unions is a historically demonstrated means for workers to raise their living standards. Additionally, the expansion of unions in the US becomes a means to extend the boundaries on what is considered acceptable discourse on the economy and politics. Workers gain a greater voice and through that a chance at power. The problem is that the entire framework in the fight for EFCA is too mainstream and narrow.
The Left needs to be engaged in this battle but it also needs to point out the limitations of EFCA. Specifically, the critical factor that few are addressing is the matter that employers should not be involved, in any respect, in the choice by workers to join or form a union. It is simply not their business. In that sense, if employers were prohibited from any involvement, including expressing their views publicly, it actually would make less of a difference as to whether there were elections or card check. When there is intimidation or the possibility of intimidation, it is impossible to have a legitimate, secret-ballot election. This is something that most observers have noticed in the conduct of any election where there has been a proliferation of death squads or other governmental intimidation (think of Central America during the 1980s and early 1990s). The elections are not free. This is just as much the case when it comes to workers choosing unions.
The Left needs to encourage progressive social movements to engage in the EFCA battle. There are organizations such as Jobs with Justice that grasp the importance of building a broad front to support EFCA, and individuals as well as organizations can affiliate with it. That said, support for EFCA need not be exclusively conducted through union movement channels. There is nothing to stop other organizations involved with or supporting the cause of workers’ rights to become engaged in this fight and articulate their own message in their own way to their respective constituencies. It would actually strengthen the effort to pass EFCA and should be encouraged by organized labor.
The passage of EFCA can be an important move but it will not resolve the crisis facing organized labor. In fact, organized labor’s difficulty conceptualizing a broadened approach to the passage of EFCA is illustrative of elements of the crisis itself. The leaders of organized labor by and large do not appreciate that a different approach to unionism is not only a good idea but is an essential approach if we are to face the realities of twenty-first century capitalism. The sharp antagonism of capital towards workers should make clear that corporate America has no interest in coming to a partnership with workers unless such a partnership continues to rest on the complete subordination of workers to the whims and desire of capital.
That’s why we need EFCA to pass. In order for it to pass, millions of people need to be mobilized to realize that EFCA is not about building the union-as-institution, but about expanding democracy and advancing a process that has historically proven to be a mechanism to raise the living standards of working-class people. That is the significant challenge that organized labor and its allies face, but it is a challenge that must be addressed if the fight for EFCA is to be understood by the people of this country, particularly the Left, as a fight that they must take up. n
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the executive editor of BlackCommentator.com and the co-author of “Solidarity Divided” which analyzes the crisis in organized labor in the US. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.