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The Baltimore Sun

Stimulus from the Bottom Up

Julie Greene

In the United States, working people find the deck stacked against them. The structure of labor law makes it extraordinarily difficult for them to organize. And if they cannot organize, they have little ability to fight for fair wages or ensure that their constitutional rights are respected at the workplace. Scholars have repeatedly shown that when the government makes it easier for workers to organize to protect their rights and interests, they not only win higher wages but also spend that money on consumer goods, pumping money into the economy and generating growth.

Call it a stimulus package from the bottom up. All it requires are labor laws that are fair and that stop employer intimidation aimed at preventing workers' rights to a union - measures like the Employee Free Choice Act.

Since 1980, worker productivity has increased by 70 percent, but wages have grown by only 5 percent. Who has profited from working people's increased productivity? The growing gap between CEO and worker pay suggests the answer.

Amid the current economic crisis, as workers face unemployment or confront lower pay and reduced health benefits, it is important that they have the ability to fight for their rights. The majority of workers want a union, surveys have shown, but aggressive corporate strategies have made most of them fear for their jobs if they attempt to unionize. Unfortunately, their fears are grounded in reality.

The Employee Free Choice Act would take an important step toward restoring workers' rights. Existing laws include few penalties for employers who intimidate or fire workers. Even when workers win the right to be represented by a union, current laws allow employers to stall by appealing or engaging in bad-faith bargaining.

The Employee Free Choice Act would return democracy to the workplace by giving workers a clear and straightforward way to make their voices heard. It would allow workers to signal their desire for union representation either by choosing an election or by a process of majority sign-up. This method makes it much harder for employers to corrupt the process through a campaign of intimidation.

The National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935, included the same strategy for allowing workers to exercise their rights to a union; it resulted in millions of workers joining unions, and the higher wages they won as a result helped the U.S. recover from the Great Depression. Corporate campaigning and careful partnerships with conservatives resulted in the undoing of this measure in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The Employee Free Choice Act would simply restore rights that workers long ago fought hard to win, but then lost.

The Employee Free Choice Act would restore workers' right to make their voices heard and achieve true democracy at their workplaces.

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Julie Greene is a professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her books include "The Canal Builders: Making America's Empire at the Panama Canal." Her e-mail is

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