Employee Free Choice Act: a second stimulus

With our economy inching its way toward recovery, there has been some discussion about the need for a second stimulus package. I can think of none better than the Employee Free Choice Act. This legislation would allow workers to join a union freely and fairly. Dozens of prominent economists, including three Nobel Prize laureates, recently signed a statement in support of enacting the Employee Free Choice Act, calling it “a critically important step in rebuilding our economy.”

The positive impact of membership in a union during these tough economic times cannot be overstated. Workers who belong to unions earn at least 28 percent more than non-union workers, and they are much more likely to have healthcare and pension benefits.

The current system for forming unions is badly broken, hampering the ability of working families to bargain for a better life. Employers routinely intimidate, harass, coerce, reassign or even fire workers who support a union. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, employers unlawfully fire at least one worker for union activity in 25 percent of all organizing drives. This is unacceptable.

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In the cases where workers manage to form a union, many employers continue their resistance by refusing to reach a first contract. In fact, a third of unions still do not have a first contract after more than a year of bargaining. Without a contract, there is effectively no union.

The Employee Free Choice Act simply restores workers’ rights to form unions and bargain. Under the bill, if a majority of workers sign cards authorizing a union, they get a union, a process known as majority sign-up. Secondly, to ensure employers do not simply run out the clock, the bill guarantees a first contract through mediation and if necessary, binding arbitration. Finally, the bill would stiffen penalties against employers that break the law.
The opposition to this legislation has been frantic and misleading. First, opponents created a smokescreen by claiming the Employee Free Choice Act eliminates the right to an
NLRB secret ballot election. This could not be further from the truth. Under current law, workers can form a union through an NLRB election or, only if their employer agrees, majority sign-up.  The Employee Free Choice Act still provides for an NLRB election process, triggered when 30 percent of the workers petition for one —the same as current law. But under the bill, workers could opt for majority sign-up and the employer would not be able to veto that choice. In other words, the Employee Free Choice Act rightly leaves the choice of whether and how to form a union up to workers — not corporate executives.

With the secret-ballot myth exposed, opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act have turned their sights to an equally important provision — binding arbitration. The Wall Street Journal editorial page recently called it “federal wage setting.” This is utter nonsense. An arbitrator by its very nature does not favor workers or management. They tend to be conservative and shy away from overreaching in an award. For instance, a 2001 study of police officer salaries from 32 states and the District of Columbia found that there was no statistically significant evidence that the presence of an arbitration statute systematically affects wages. Arbitration would simply prevent employers from digging in their heels and refusing to reach a first contract.

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Instead of masking themselves in disingenuous arguments, the opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act should come out and state their true feelings: They do not like unions and that is why they oppose this bill. That, of course, is their right. But workers also have a fundamental right to organize and bargain collectively. At its core, that is what this bill would provide.

According to a December 2006 study by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, 60 million workers said they would join a union if they could. That number has likely increased during the recession. The only thing stopping them is a broken system that protects employers instead of employees. It is time to give all Americans a chance at achieving the American Dream by making the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land.

Hare is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee.