Restore rights for workers to rebuild the middle class

But, today, these gains are being rapidly eroded. As private-sector union membership declined in recent decades, median work-age household income has fallen, and millions of workers have lost healthcare and pension benefits.

Rebuilding and strengthening America’s middle class depends on restoring the ability of employees to exercise their democratic rights at work — including their right to organize into unions. Today, 60 percent of workers want to join a union, but only 7 percent actually belong to one. This is because Americans’ constitutional right to form a union has been systematically undermined.

Today, even the most brazen union-busting tactics — threats, harassment, firings — are tolerated or punished with only the mildest of penalties. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell University, studied a random sample of 1,000 union elections over the last five years. She found that in 34 percent of those elections, companies fired employees for union activity. In 57 percent of those elections, employers threatened to shut down all or part of their facilities. In 54 percent, supervisors met with workers one-on-one to threaten them with reprisals if they supported a union. Even when employees succeed in forming a union, nearly half of employers simply refuse to negotiate a first contract in good faith.

This is unfair, unjust and it must be changed.

I am fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act because I want to restore some measure of balance and fairness to the organizing process. We need to get coercion and intimidation out of the workplace. In theory, employers can’t fire workers for organizing. In practice, they often do so with impunity. The penalty for union-busting amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist. If a fired worker sues, the employer only has to repay the worker what he or she is owed in back wages and deduct wages made in another job. Some companies view such a small penalty as just the cost of doing business — a negligible price to pay for scaring off a union.

Regrettably, some opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act are trying to play on the fears and anxieties created by the steep economic downturn. Remember, it was in the depths of the Great Depression, in 1935, with over 20 percent unemployment, when Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act establishing the right to organize. And in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act established the minimum wage and the 40-hour workweek. If we could enact those historic reforms then, we can surely enact the Employee Free Choice Act now.

The truth is that EFCA is alive and kicking. I am actively talking to senators who have expressed reservations about the bill. I always expected to make changes and compromises in order to pass a bill. But here is my bottom line: I am seeking to craft a compromise that will maintain three core principles:

• Giving workers real freedom to choose a union;

• Ensuring that workers who organize will get a first contract;

• Providing meaningful penalties for repeated violations of workers’ rights.

I am optimistic that we can find a reasonable compromise, and that we can pass a good bill this year. People of good will on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that the current system is broken and needs to be reformed.

Can we pass the Employee Free Choice Act? I’ve got a three-word answer to that question: Yes.We.Can!

Harkin is chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.