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Employee Free Choice Act Gives Workers a Fair and Democratic Chance to Form Unions

03/04/2009 04:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steve Rosenthal President, The Organizing Group; Former Political Director, AFL-CIO; Founder, America Coming Together

The Employee Free Choice Act, the legislation supported by President Obama and large majorities of both houses of congress WILL NOT ELIMINATE SECRET BALLOTS IN UNION REPRESENTATION ELECTIONS (PERIOD).

Opponents like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a range of right-wing front groups led by disciples of George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and Grover Norquist -- the folks who got the country in the mess we're in right now -- want to try to make this a debate about "secret ballots." They cry crocodile tears for workers they claim are being denied their American rights to a democratic election. But, the fact is, the Employee Free Choice Act is democratic - and it puts the choice of how workers form unions in workers' hands, not big corporations - and that's why these guys are really crying.

Let's look at how union representation elections are currently conducted, and how the deck is stacked against workers in winning the right to unite together into a union. Anyone who thinks this is a fair and democratic process has obviously never been involved in it.

Violation of Democracy #1: In order to have a union election, 30% of workers need to sign cards calling for an election. If that principle were applied to American presidential elections, we would have needed 70 million Americans to sign cards calling for last November's national election.

Violation of Democracy #2: Once 30% sign cards calling for an election it can take months - sometimes years, sometimes never - because of arcane rules that allow companies to file objections that lead to countless electoral delays, before the workers actually have a chance to vote in an election. It's usually in the interest of companies to sap the momentum from an organizing drive and delay an election as long as possible. Imagine if a candidate kept trying to push off Election Day in the hopes that the political climate would become more favorable or his opponent would give up - that's what the current process allows companies to do. In fact, it took a 15 year organizing battle to finally unionize the Smithfield Packing slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, NC.

Violation of Democracy #3: During the run-up to the election the union is not allowed to campaign on the company's property - which can mean not only the workplace but company-owned property such as parking lots. Meanwhile, the company is free to campaign anywhere it wants and can paper the workplace with anti-union messages. Imagine an election for president where one candidate is allowed to wander freely across the land talking to voters, while the other candidate and their campaign is banned from America and can only stand in Mexico and Canada hoping to speak to voters as they cross the border.

Violation of Democracy #4: Most times in union representation elections the company has full access to the list of eligible voters, but the union only has access to the list in the closing days. And the more the company can delay the election, the more time they have when they are the only voice the workers hear. How can you communicate a winning message when you don't even know who to communicate with?

Violation of Democracy #5: The company holds "captive audience meetings" - sessions at the workplace, that workers must attend, often with their direct supervisors. There the workers are shown videos about the "evils of unions" and are told that it is in their best interest to vote against the union. According to one study, during more than 90% of organizing efforts companies held group anti-union meetings and 78% of the time employees were forced to attend one-on-one meetings with their supervisors. The union, which has no access to the company's property and no list of eligible voters until the very end, must figure out any way possible to communicate its message with potential voters.

Violation of Democracy #6: Many companies fire union supporters and claim they are being fired for other reasons since it is illegal to fire or even threaten to fire workers for supporting unions. Studies show that one quarter of union organizing drives lead to employee firing, and that one out of every five workers who openly support a union are fired. It can take years of hearings to have these workers reinstated and the penalties companies face are minimal. According to one story about an organizing drive at a Rite Aid distribution center in Southern California, the company dismissed more than 100 union supporters. After being threatened with legal action, the company rehired a few workers and posted a notice saying it wouldn't engage in illegal anti-union activities. Imagine the chilling effect it would have on a political campaign if voters knew that for supporting a certain candidate they could lose their jobs.

Violation of Democracy #7: Many companies tell workers that if they opt for union representation there is no guarantee the facility will stay open - indeed more than half of employers tell their workers during an organizing drive that a union will likely lead to layoffs. Yes, it is against the law for companies to threaten to close a facility if it unionizes, but again, the hearings take months, or years, and once the company is found guilty of violating the law, the organizing campaign is long since over, and the penalty is usually forcing the company to post a notice saying they won't do it again.

Violation of Democracy #8: The elections are held on company property and workers are frequently forced to pass lines of company managers to get to the place where they cast their votes. Imagine in a political campaign if the polling places were all in one candidate's campaign headquarters and voters were surrounded by the candidate's fiercest partisans - who happened to be their bosses!

Violation of Democracy #9: If the company doesn't like the way things are going - in other words, if they think they are losing - they can delay the election or the counting of the ballots. If John McCain had that option last November the '08 campaign would still be going on.

Violation of Democracy #10: Despite all of the above, if the workers are successful and win a union representation election, the employer can delay actually sitting down and negotiating a contract for months - then put so many roadblocks in the way, that it can become almost impossible to get a contract. And this is exactly what happens 40% of the time.

Hardly a democratic process. To begin to level the playing field, President Obama and majorities of the US House and Senate support the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill will allow workers, not their employers, to choose the union formation process - either through an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board or through majority sign up. Thirteen states and many large and successful companies (like AT&T, Kaiser Permanente and UPS) currently allow workers to make their own choice in forming unions. More than half of U.S. Workers - 60 million - say they would join a union today if they could. And is it any wonder when workers who belong to unions earn 14% higher pay and are 28% more likely to have employer-provided health care.

The Employee Free Choice Act will strengthen America's middle class by making it easier for workers to join together and bargain with their employers for better pay, benefits and working conditions. Nothing could be more democratic than that.

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