Employee Free Choice Act is overdue
The Employee Free Choice Act is long overdue, argues guest columnist and labor leader David Freiboth. The pending reform legislation addresses an employee's role in democratic determination but it also addresses the larger problem of employer intimidation of workers who want to unionize.
Special to The Times
THE debate over pending labor-law reform, the Employee Free Choice Act, is getting mired in concerns about an employee's role in democratic determinism, thereby missing the larger economic issue that drives the real issue. Scare tactics that highlight problems with union intimidation during organizing campaigns are just that — scare tactics — designed to subvert the essence of the issue.
To get a better sense of the real debate let's start with the numbers.
A recent Gallup poll shows that 53 percent favor and 39 percent oppose reforms that "make it easier for labor unions to organize employees." Problem is, the current law that protects workers' freedom to choose to bargain collectively has been perverted. When faced with a union organizing drive, 25 percent of companies fire the "ringleaders," according to the National Labor Relations Board.
Although this practice is technically illegal, the bar for proving union-organizing discrimination is so high and the penalties so low that when workers express a desire to unionize they are, in effect, risking their livelihoods.
In addition, employees who want to form unions are often threatened with plant closings, offered bribes, spied on and intimidated, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The result? Only 8 percent of private-sector workers actually belong to unions, even though 58 percent of U.S. workers say they want a union in their workplace — the highest percentage in 25 years — based upon a report by the independent researcher firm Hart and Associates.
A recent article written by Times editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey ["The Employee Faux Choice Act, March 18] ignores the realities of employer intimidation. What he outlines is a somewhat simplistic world where if an employee signs an authorization card they are represented by a union and if they decide later they don't want the representation they can opt out. There are a couple of realities that make this problematic.
The first reality is economic. According to many studies, 52 percent of unionized employees are more likely to have job-provided health care, nearly three times more likely to have guaranteed pensions and earn 28 percent more than nonunion workers. How do you say to someone who decides that they don't want to be represented any longer that they have to give it all back?
Well, you don't, of course. It's not practical to think in those terms. The reality is that all employees in a unionized environment benefit whether they realize it or not. Opting in or out is really not very practical when one recognizes the practicalities of union representation.
The second reality is statutory. Currently, it is a legal requirement that labor organizations represent all statutory employees of a company regardless of whether or not they are members. In about half the states, unions are allowed to collect payment for services they are required to provide from those who choose not to maintain union membership. In the other half, the misleadingly named "right to work" states, unions are required to represent all workers but are prohibited by the state government from charging for those services.
It's kind of like the government requiring that everyone have access to police and fire protection while the protected enjoy the option of not paying the taxes needed to fund the service if they don't feel like it. Equitable? Can anyone say "free rider?"
So while the issue of unionization is a broad economic issue, it is also about personal choice. If one really looks at the facts what is revealed is that an employee's right to engage in union organizing, a right laid out in the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, is no right at all. Employees all over the country are having their freedom to express their desire to form a union compromised by the same folks who put us in the worse economic crisis since the Great Depression.
It's time for a change.
David Freiboth is executive secretary of the King County Labor Council.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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