America's working families today are running faster than ever to keep up, and still falling behind. High costs in healthcare, housing, energy, and college tuition are suffocating families' budgets.Last year personal savings were negative 1 percent, the lowest savings rate in 73 years, according to the Commerce Department. Children are forced to compensate for their parents' inadequate retirement funds. In short, disposable income is now part of the "good old days."
All the while, executives of profitable companies bask in outlandish compensation. How did this happen to America's workers? There are a number of reasons -- including unfair trade laws and poor national fiscal policy. And one major factor that often remains hidden is that corporations have systematically riddled workers' freedom to improve their lives through unions, and our nation's labor laws are too weak to stop them.
It is no secret that the rise in the American middle class paralleled the rise in the number of American workers who joined unions. After all, union workers earn 30 percent more than workers without a union, and are much more likely to have healthcare and pensions. Increasing the number of people who are in unions is the surest way for today's workers to reverse their fortunes and rebuild the American middle class.
Yet companies routinely violate workers' basic right to form a union. Thirty percent of private sector employers fire pro-union workers, 50 percent threaten to close worksites if the workers choose to unionize, and 91 percent force employees to attend one-on-one meetings against the union, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell University.
Unfortunately, these nasty methods of threat and coercion work for the employer. In more than 90 percent of union elections, a majority of workers indicated in writing that they wanted a union at the beginning of the process. However, unions won less than half of these elections, after months and years of employer intimidation. Does this sound like a system that is fair to workers?
Americans are given the right to vote and elect our political figures. It is a sacred and fundamental right that we often brag about when holding the country up as a beacon of democracy to the rest of the world and to one another.
Would we still be a beacon if on the way into the voting booth a politician pulled us aside, one-on-one, and threatened, intimidated, and coerced us about what horrible things would happen if we didn't vote the "right" way? Of course not. We'd be a despicable banana republic, not a beacon of democracy.
But that is the reality in union elections, and that is the reason why so few workers are able to do what every recent legitimate measure of worker sentiment tells us the majority of them want to do: join a union and improve their lives.
Fortunately, there is legislation in Congress that will give workers the real freedom to join a union. With Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts as its lead sponsor, the Employee Free Choice Act will help remedy the fact that for decades corporations have fought to deny workers their right to unionize with a fervor and animus that is at best disdainful of workers' rights, and at worst disappointingly un-American.
Workplace democracy means having the freedom to join a union and being able to exercise that right freely, without fear of repercussion or systematic intimidation. The American middle class depends on workers having the ability to exercise our right to join unions and bargain collectively, as freely as we exercise our right to elect our government, speak our mind, practice our religion, assemble peaceably or bear arms.
The Employee Free Choice Act is a crucial first step to rebuilding the middle class and ensuring that working people can once again share in our nation's prosperity.
John Sweeney is president of the AFL-CIO.
© Copyright 2007 The Boston Globe