03/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Demand: Banks Getting Our Money Can't Oppose Unions

Perhaps only the prospect of hanging at dawn focuses the mind more than money. And now that we have the attention of all those banks and other folks who salivate at getting our (taxpayer) money through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), why not get something real out of them: write into new legislation authorizing any additional bailout money (particularly the possible establishment of a "bad" bank to buy up assets) that any institution getting taxpayer bailout money must agree to be neutral in union organizing campaigns. Here's the rationale:

I am all for the demands on limiting executive compensation; the president was correct in referring to the Wall Street bonuses as "shameful". But, aside from the slippery question how you set the ceiling for that pay and monitor its enforcement, I'd much rather focus on the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people who work for these financial institutions who get no bonuses, have no health care, no real pensions and no protection--this industry is almost entirely non-union.

So, why shouldn't the labor movement call for a simple requirement: if you take taxpayer money, you may not oppose any attempt to unionize the workplace. You must remain neutral. And, as an add-on, any institution facing charges by the National Labor Relations Board, or facing any federal civil rights suit on wage, age, race, gender or other workplace fairness violation, may not receive any bailout money.

Why do I focus on employer neutrality? In my view, the active employer anti-union campaign is the number one reason workers don't join unions. If you bar companies from launching ant-union campaigns, unions will win far more elections and negotiate first contracts far more quickly. Note this: the Employee Free Choice Act does not--does not--demand neutrality (a weakness in the proposed legislation, in my opinion...but that's a story for another day).

Note that the president has already set a precedent in his first days in office. One of his first executive orders signed the other day barred federal contractors from being reimbursed for expenses meant to influence workers deciding whether to form a union and engage in collective bargaining. That is effectively a step towards demanding neutrality.

It's a certainty that the Republicans will howl at the demand and try to block the requirement. But, why not have that fight now?

It would actually be a great educational moment and, I would argue, a clear juxtaposition of the powers at play. We are saying if you want taxpayer money to bail out your mistakes, we have a right to set some standards about how our money will be used. You, bankers and financial elites, want the freedom to continue to exist. We simply want to give people the right, without coercion, to decide whether they get to have a union, which would give them a better standard of living.

We have something they want. Let's not give it to them without a big payoff--a long-term payoff for hundreds of thousands of workers.

I would also argue, respectfully, that this is a golden opportunity to engage the broader public in workplace rights. EFCA is still a bit obscure to most of the public, partly because of the size of the labor movement and the lack of any effective non-labor voices articulating a clear message about EFCA beyond childish caricatures. But, in this instance, we are making a simply argument: you are getting our money to benefit the shareholders and the managers of your failed institutions so we want something in return to benefit the people who make your companies run.

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