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The U.S. corporate class has always been notorious for its ferocious opposition to unions. And true to form, business leaders reacted with collective hysteria to the introduction of legislation in the House and Senate on March 10th that would make it just a bit easier for workers to unionize.
The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would allow unions to win recognition once a majority of workers at a given workplace signs a union card, rather than allowing managers to force their workers to suffer through a drawn-out union election by secret ballot. Employers typically prefer to force a union election because it allows them to delay the decision by months while they fire union supporters and force their workers to endure “captive audience” meetings with managers who threaten to close down the company or move elsewhere in the case of a union victory.
EFCA would also compel recalcitrant employers to bargain with unions, by imposing binding arbitration if there is no agreement reached 120 days after a union wins recognition. This is necessary because roughly half of all new unions never get a contract due to their managements’ refusal to bargain in good faith.
The Chamber of Commerce has called EFCA a “firestorm bordering on Armageddon.” In an October 28th interview on CNBC, John McCain pledged to veto EFCA if elected president, calling it “dangerous for America, [and] it’s dangerous to small business. And I think it’s a threat to one of the fundamentals of democracy.”
The Chamber, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and other anti-union corporate crusaders have raised $200 million to combat EFCA. And they have only just begun to fight, framing their defense of workers’ “right” to a vote by secret ballot in a union election as if this were a struggle to preserve a sacred cornerstone of democracy — by preventing unions from simply asking workers to sign union cards if they would like to join the union.
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In reality, EFCA would maintain the option of voting by secret ballot but transfers the decision to workers instead of employers, where it currently resides. Nevertheless, on the March 14 edition of Fox News’ “The Journal Editorial Report,” Wall St. Journal editor Paul Gigot accused “Big Labor” of using “brass knuckles” and their “toughest tactics” to get their way. It turns out that the behavior to which Gigot referred was nothing more thuggish than a group of unions having “written a letter … to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner suggesting that any banks or companies that receive funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program shouldn’t be able to lobby [against EFCA].”
This would seem a perfectly reasonable request, given that both Bank of America and Citigroup organized conference calls to launch their own campaigns against EFCA after receiving $25 billion and $50 billion in bailout funds, respectively. These clueless executives still seem not to realize that union busting is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money — especially in the midst of the apparently limitless taxpayer bailout of the Wall St. banks who provoked the current economic crisis. These are undoubtedly the same sort of managers who believe that referring to underpaid and overworked retail employees as “associates” actually prevents working-class resentment from appearing in their workplaces.
EFCA was last introduced in Congress in 2007, when it fell victim to a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Employers are aiming for the same outcome this time around. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who was a sponsor of the original EFCA bill in 2003, voted for it in 2005 and voted against the Republican filibuster in 2007 was undecided on the new bill until March 24th, when he made a firm about-face. As he explained his newfound anti-union stand, “The problems of the recession make this a particularly bad time to enact Employees Free Choice legislation. Employers understandably complain that adding a burden would result in further job losses.”
Some news outlets, including U.S. News and World Report, have credited Specter with dealing a “death blow” to EFCA because his lone vote will provide Republicans with the 60 Senate votes necessary to successfully vote against cloture — i.e., to achieve a filibuster. Alas, Specter must share the “death blow” distinction with a handful of Senate Democrats who have also belatedly turned against EFCA. Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor from Wal-Mart’s home state of Arkansas, for example, have similarly been peeled away from their previous support for an easier path to unionization. Even Barak Obama, who made his support for EFCA a campaign promise, indicated in a January 15th interview with the Washington Post that he would be open to making some compromise with business interests.
Starbucks, Costco and Whole Foods chief executives came forward with just such a compromise in March. Although these three companies all promote a “progressive” image, they have managed to remain largely union-free — with the exception of Costco, where the Teamsters union has organized about one-fifth of the workforce.
Moreover, their proposed compromise removes the most important aspects of the legislation: the right to unionization by majority card check and binding arbitration after 120 days of management stalling. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey bluntly explained their anti-union reasoning for removing these elements from the bill to the Washington Post, “Armed with those weapons, you will see unionization sweep across the United States and set workplaces at war with each other. I do not think it would be a good thing.”
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Even this proposed toothless version of EFCA is too much for the Chamber of Commerce, however. Glenn Spencer, a senior executive at the Chamber argued, “I would say probably from the whole business community’s perspective, there are really no amendments you could make to this bill that would make it acceptable.”
From unions’ viewpoint, removing those key provisions from EFCA would make it worthless, based on the widespread intimidation tactics used by employers. According to the AFL-CIO, when companies are faced with a union drive,
–92 percent of managers force their employees to attend closed-door meetings against the union — and 78 percent require their workers to attend one-on-one meetings with their supervisors;
–75 percent of companies hire professional union-busters;
–52 percent threatens to call U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services against immigrant workers;
–25 percent illegally fire at least one worker during a union campaign.
It is no wonder that, as the AFL-CIO notes, 78 percent of the public supports workers’ right to bargain for better wages and benefits — and expresses precious little sympathy for the plight of corporate executives as this economic crisis worsens. Management, not labor, intimidates workers when it comes to union organizing.
But this new phase of the class struggle cannot be won via dueling television ads, however much popular sentiment tilts toward unions. Anti-union corporations spent $50 million on ads skewering Democratic Party candidates during last fall’s Congressional campaigns, while unions mustered only about $10 million for the same purpose against Republicans. Tellingly, Specter told reporters about his Republican peers, “I’m being lobbied on it very, very heavily” before he shifted his vote on EFCA.
Neither Senate Democrats nor labor leaders have thus far waged a principled fight approaching the level of determination exhibited by Republicans and the business lobby over EFCA. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on March 10th that Democrats’ push for a vote on EFCA might “have to wait until after the August recess” unless Democrats are assured the bill can survive a Republican attempt to filibuster. Each month that passes without a vote on this crucial piece of pro-union legislation significantly reduces its chances of success, as Democrats conveniently “forget” the promises they made during their 2008 election campaigns that inspired their supporters to get out the vote.
Unions need to mobilize the millions of workers who are enthusiastic union supporters to gain the upper hand in this struggle.
SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org