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Labor Law Reform is Essential to Reviving America's Beleaguered Middle-Class

Amy F. Isaacs

Pooling resources and banding together with those who share similar beliefs and goals is a basic right that all of use every day. We might join our neighbors to pressure our local government to save a park or to fix roads. Maybe, we join a parents' group to help out at our children's school or take part in organizing a neighborhood watch program. These are all basic ways in which we organize to improve the vitality of our communities.

The right to organize has been crucial for most of our great movements. Colonists banded together to defeat oppressive English rule; suffragists organized so women could vote; nations collaborated to fight totalitarianism in World War II; and civil rights activists joined together to secure a more equal opportunity for minorities. Think of any great change that we have undertaken and the basic human right to associate has been a centerpiece of the success.

The right to organize in the workplace is an essential component for a vibrant democracy. Yet for many American workers, this essential human right is commonly suppressed in a way that rarely makes news. The untold story is that of dedicated workers who struggle against tremendous odds fashion better lives for themselves and their families. They are harassed, coerced, even fired for their efforts to band together and organize their workplace. While these tactics are often illegal, the current system as governed by current labor law and through the lax enforcement by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is so flawed and weak that many workers who try to organize wait years only to see their lawless former employers slapped with meaningless fines and half-hearted admonitions. Most employers are willing to write these off as simply one of the costs of doing business in an age when employees are, all too often, viewed as an expendable commodity not an essential partner in the success of business.

Imagine if these same kinds of barriers were in place for other organizing activities. How would we feel if the city evicted us from our homes because we organized a group to pressure the city to fix bad roads? Or maybe your child was expelled from school because you joined a parents' group concerned with education? Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But that's the current state of our labor laws. People who are simply trying to join with their peers in an effort to improve their wages, healthcare, and workplace safety are brutally harassed by employers and often fired for exercising this most basic of freedoms.

Congress is debating legislation that would remedy many of these shortcomings. The Employee Free Choice Act seeks to give workers a simple process for choosing to organize, a streamlined system for getting labor contracts enacted, and to strengthen the punishment and enforcement of employer labor law violations. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Employee Free Choice Act but the debate in the U.S. Senate is yet to come. The legislation allows workers to choose their own course free from the illegal campaign tactics that employers have come to rely on. The reality is that corporate bullies don't want their bats taken away. According the NLRB's own records, a worker is fired for trying to organize his/her workplace every 23 minutes. That epidemic ended immediately.

It's no coincidence that the shrinking of America's middle-class has run parallel to the dwindling of America's vibrant labor movement. When workers have a greater say in the day-to-day environment in which they work, everyone wins. Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act in the Senate and the President's signature would be extremely helpful to ensuring worker rights and bolstering the prosperity of the American middle-class.

Amy F. Isaacs is National Director of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a leading liberal lobbying organization since 1947.

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