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Too Important Not To Pass

S. 1041 The Employee Free Choice Act

Sheldon Friedman

The following is taken from remarks delivered at the meeting of Labor and Employment Relations Association, Washington DC Chapter, April 25, 2007: The Employee Free Choice Act is the most important legislative proposal in at least a generation, and arguably since passage of the Wagner Act, to protect the fundamental human right of America's workers to form unions and bargain collectively.

Why does this matter? It matters for many reasons-but especially for the economic situation and future of America's workers and their families, for all those outside the top economic tier who have been bypassed by a growing economy-and it matters immensely for the quality of life of all Americans and the nature of the society we will pass on to our children.

Perhaps the central defining economic fact of the last thirty years or more is this: the productivity of the US economy has risen 75% since 1973, yet the real wages of non-supervisory workers are lower today than they were in 1973. Why did this disconnect between wages and productivity happen?

A key reason can be found in another less well-known paradox: extrapolating from the latest survey by pollster Peter Hart, sixty million non-union workers want a union in their workplace-yet last year fewer than 70,000 workers were able to form unions via the NLRB's current process. Many more workers than this did form unions, but they did so by going around-rather than through-the NLRB process.

What is the explanation for the enormous gap between the number of workers who want unions and the tiny handful that succeed in getting them? The biggest reason is employer interference and a broken law that fails to protect workers' most basic workplace rights. The current NLRB representation process has become a death trap for workers who are struggling to form a union.

The NLRB process encourages lengthy, confrontational campaigns aimed at snuffing out union support. Weeks and months of employer threats, intimidation, surveillance, coercion, and even firings - usually orchestrated by professional consultants - are now the norms, as are months and years of debilitating delays.

Political scientists who have studied this process find it a parody of democracy. Due to weak remedies for violating the law and delayed enforcement, the process rewards heavy-handed employer interference. One side - the employer - has lopsided access to workplace communications, campaign funding, and the voters themselves; the other side has virtually no access and is almost completely shut out. The NLRB representation election process often resembles more closely the elections held in totalitarian countries than anything that a fair-minded person would recognize as a free and democratic election.

Not only is this a human rights issue-it is a huge economic and social policy issue as well. A key reason for the widening gap between the wealth workers produce and what they are paid for their labor-perhaps the key reason-is the disappearance of effective legal protection for workers' freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.

It is no accident that rising economic inequality-and stagnant or declining real wages despite rising productivity-have gone hand-in-hand with declining unionization and the ever-tightening noose on the freedom of workers to form unions and bargain collectively.

In terms of wages, union members enjoy a 30% advantage--$833 per week in 2006, versus $642 for non-union workers-a union advantage of $191 per week, or nearly $10,000 per year.

The economic advantage of union membership is even greater for workers who face discrimination in the labor market: 36% for African American workers, and 46% for Latino workers.


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Collective bargaining is especially important to low-wage workers. One of the more disgraceful domestic policy legacies of the current Administration is the five million-person increase in the number of persons who are poor-as officially measured-during the first five years of President Bush's watch. For workers in low-wage occupations, there is no better path out of poverty than collective bargaining and a union card. For example, union cashiers earn 46% more than non-union cashiers. On a yearly basis, this spells the difference between earnings that are more than $4,000 above the poverty line for union cashiers with a family of four, versus more than $3,700 below the poverty line for non-union cashiers. The numbers tell a similar story for waiters and waitresses, car wash workers, housekeepers and numerous other low-wage occupations.

In an era of mounting concern about lack of family time, union workers have a 28% advantage in paid vacation days over non-union workers.

In an era of mounting concern over the nation's festering health care crisis, non-union workers are five times more likely than union members to lack health insurance coverage.

Retirement income security has become a thing of the past for non-union workers; fewer than 15% of them have guaranteed defined benefit pensions today. According to the BLS, nearly 70% of union members have guaranteed defined benefit pensions through their employers.

As important as these and other economic advantages of collective bargaining are to individual workers, they are equally if not more important to society at large and the economy as a whole. When workers' freedom to form unions enjoys strong protection and collective bargaining, accordingly, becomes widespread, wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment are boosted-not just for union members-but economy-wide. When collective bargaining is sufficiently widespread, it sets the economic standard that non-union employers must meet to compete. Furthermore, everyone in society benefits from the stronger safety net programs that a strong labor movement is able to champion and defend.

Over time, collective bargaining transforms jobs from 'bad' to 'good' -it did this in manufacturing after the birth of the CIO, and it could do it again in the economic sectors where employment is growing today-as examples from the hotel industry and others demonstrate.

Furthermore, workers without a union contract rarely have recourse if their employer disciplines or fires them unjustly; union members nearly always are protected against wrongful discipline or discharge by strong contract language. Collective bargaining brings an important element of democracy to the workplace and enhances workers' dignity on the job.

Indeed, unions are central to democracy not only in the workplace but also in the wider society. Union members are more likely to register and vote than non-union workers.

In short, collective bargaining has many of the attributes of what economists call a public good-something that benefits everyone, but which the unregulated market left to its own devices does not adequately provide. Given all of these, and other, benefits to workers and society-and given that it is a fundamental human right-we should embrace national policies that make it easy for workers to form unions in their workplaces, not risky and difficult as it is today.

The Senate has an important opportunity to put the nation on a path to economic justice by protecting workers' basic freedom to form unions and bargain collectively-something precious that they have lost-by passing S. 1041, the Employee Free Choice Act.

Sheldon Friedman is Research Coordinator for the AFL-CIO Voice@Work Campaign.

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