At the three-day America’s Future Now! conference going on now in Washington, D.C., many workshops are focused on empowering people and building a stronger, fairer economy, and few issues are more critical to those goals than the Employee Free Choice Act and restoring workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life.
At a session this morning on the Employee Free Choice Act, some of the people most involved in the fight to pass the bill discussed why we need it and how we’re going to make it happen.
Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the leadership in the Senate is strongly behind the bill and he won’t back down on giving real freedom to workers who want a union, making sure workers can get a first contract and that there are meaningful penalties to violations of workers’ freedom.
If senators refuse to compromise, if they refuse to come to the table in good faith, I will take the original bill to the floor and demand an up-or-down vote. We will see where everyone stands, and working people can vote accordingly.
Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), talked about the 1930s, when the expansion of collective bargaining helped rebuild the economy by giving workers a stake in the economy. We need to give workers that power again, he said:
You will never revive this economy or the buying power of American workers unless American workers have a seat at the table, a voice, the ability to collectively bargain.
Cohen told the story of Sara Steffens, a prize-winning journalist who, with her co-workers, faced massive employer intimidation while trying to form a union. The United States is nearly unique among industrial democracies in the world because here workers like Steffens face a management veto and management abuses over what should be their choice to form a union. CEOs and corporate lobbyists are spending tens of millions of dollars, Cohen said, to block the Employee Free Choice Act and keep their control over the process. That’s why we need a strong and united progressive front behind this bill, Cohen said:
We need to say to every senator, which side are you on? Are you on the side of Sara Steffens, or are you on the side of the Chamber of Commerce, making the same arguments they made in 1935? Some people are saying this isn’t the time, but this is exactly the time. It’s the time to rebuild the middle class.
Former Rep. David Bonior, chairman of American Rights at Work, said there needs to be a tie between the union movement and the broader progressive community, because we have common goals: making sure people have health care, fair wages, safety in the workplace and dignity and power in their own lives. We have the ability to change this country in a fundamental way, Bonior said. He offered a strong case that the Employee Free Choice Act is at the heart of the change our country needs.
We will pass the Employee Free Choice Act. We will do it. This is a struggle that’s been going on for decades and the injustice of it is ringing out.
We’ve watched our economy take a nosedive. It’s obvious that CEOs and corporations have gone too far, and everyone is paying a price. Those who have been calling the shots the last eight years, they put profits ahead of people—now they have the nerve to say that progressive policies will hurt the economy, as if they were experts?
Bonior said that you strengthen the economy from the bottom up, by giving workers, not their bosses, the choice about forming a union.
If you work hard, you should get a decent wage. If you get sick, you should have decent health care. If you put in a lifetime of work, you should get a pension. That’s the American dream. There’s no history of a strong middle class without collective bargaining…the Employee Free Choice Act will empower people.
Bonior said that over the past decade, 90 percent of wage growth went to the top 10 percent of earners, 59 percent of growth went to only 1 percent of earners—and a staggering 34 percent of wage growth went to the very top 0.1 percent of earners. That hurts the economy, and it’s a striking contrast to the fairer, more balanced wage growth when workers had a real choice to form a union. It’s due directly to the relentless attacks against workers who are trying to form unions, he said.
Bonior closed with a strong message for President Barack Obama and his economic team:
It is not good enough to go back to what we had, because what we had did not work and is not just and we will not stand enough.
We all have a stake in empowering more workers to have unions.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, said that the Employee Free Choice Act is a critical step in history.
The election of Obama is a testament to the long history of the civil rights movement and the progressive coalition—we haven’t won everything yet, Henderson said, but we look at real changes like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court and it’s striking to think how much things have changed. But we need the Employee Free Choice Act as well, said Henderson.
It’s not just about what unions do for individuals—although that’s critical—but what they do for communities, Henderson said.
We support it because it’s fair, because it’s the right thing to do, because it will transform this country. We need to turn up the heat to make sure that Congress deals with the fundamental needs of American workers.
Harkin, like Henderson, said the changes in Washington since the election are obvious—with a president, Barack Obama, who co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act in the Senate, and a strong secretary of labor, Hilda Solis. The next change we need is to give workers the bargaining rights they need.
The American people know the economy is broken, and they know the best bet for strengthening the middle class is giving them the right to organize. And the best way to do that is through the Employee Free Choice Act.
Workers need an easy way to say, “Yes, I want a union,” without being harassed, without being intimidated, without being fired.
About the Author: Seth D. Michaels is the online campaign coordinator for the AFL-CIO, focusing on the Employee Free Choice campaign. Prior to arriving at the AFL-CIO, he’s worked on online mobilization for Moveon.org, Blue State Digital and the National Jewish Democratic Council. He also spent two years touring the country as a member of the Late Night Players, a sketch comedy troupe.
This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on June 2, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.
Note: for more information on the Employee Free Choice Act visit this resource page compiled by Workplace Fairness http://p2pt0.wetpaint.com/page/EFCA+Resources