02/08/2007 04:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Making It Easier to Form Unions

Keith Ludlum tells a story that will make your blood boil.

Ludlum, a veteran of the first Gulf War, returned home to North Carolina in 1993 to look for a job. He got one at a Smithfield food processing plant in Tar Heel, where he quickly found working conditions to be dangerous and, as he puts it, "inhumane."

Ludlum tells of an older worker at the plant who "broke his leg on the job when it was pinned between an electric pallet jack and a concrete wall." Ludlum was dismayed when his coworker was back at the plant the day after his accident, with a "full leg cast and using crutches."

It turns out that as long as his coworker didn't miss a full day of work, Smithfield could avoid reporting the injury to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

For weeks, Ludlum's coworker hobbled into the plant on his crutches. When Ludlum asked his supervisors if they could assign the man a parking space closer to the door, they told him the spots were reserved for managers.

With that, Ludlum decided that he had had enough of the plant's awful working conditions and the supervisors' abuse. So he did what many workers do - he tried to form a union. And for that, Smithfield fired him. It took him 12 years of litigation to get his job back.

It is a fundamental right of workers to be able to join together to bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Yet all too often - indeed, in thousands of cases in the U.S. each year - employers deny workers that right.

Our broken union election system allows employers to harass, intimidate, reassign, and fire workers who support a union. This week, I introduced legislation that would enable workers to make a free and fair choice about whether to form a union. The Employee Free Choice Act is simple: it says that when a majority of workers sign cards authorizing a union, they get one, period.

The Bush administration is spending lives and dollars to try to bring democracy to other countries. It's time we had a little democracy in workplaces here at home.