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Making the Choice

By Kevin Robinson in News on Mar 5, 2007 2:50PM

2007_3_NormaRae.jpgThe House on Thursday passed the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill designed to make the difficult process of forming a union easier for workers. The legislation, passed by a vote of 241-185, largely along party lines, was supported by nearly all of Illinois' Democratic delegation, and both senators Durbin and Obama have promised to guide this bill through the Senate. Barack Obama voiced his support of the bill, although he acknowledged that getting it signed by President Bush would be another matter. "It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when," Obama told a labor rally this weekend. "We may have to wait for the next president to sign it, but we will pass it. We will get this thing done." In fact, Bush has already said that he will veto this bill if it reaches his desk.

Starting a union is a complex process, and entire books have been written on how to do it. In a nutshell, the current process of administrative rules and labor laws require at least 30% of workers to sign union cards indicating that they want to have a union, petition the government for an election, and then go through a campaign before getting to vote to have a union or not. As it stands now, that election is usually scheduled six to eight weeks after the petition is filed, assuming that there are no legal challenges by the employer (a common stalling tactic). Further impeding the right to organize in the workplace are laws, court rulings, and administrative procedures that have essentially turned the original National Labor Relations Act on its head: bosses can hold mandatory anti-union meetings during work, hire consultants to help run counter-organizing campaigns, and harass, threaten and fire union supporters with little legal consequence. The Employee Free Choice Act changes the rules regarding union representation, granting union recognition by signing up a simple majority of workers on union cards, eliminating the petition process. Furthermore, this bill creates meaningful consequences when employers violate employee rights to organize and provides for mediation and arbitration in first contract negotiations.

Opponents of the bill, like Illinois congressman Ray LaHood (R-18), say it is unbalanced. He told the Pekin Daily Times that he felt it would actually “take away the opportunity of the worker to participate and have their voice heard through the ballot.” Union activists argue that the bill would streamline a cumbersome and lopsided election process that acts more as a barrier to union representation than a protection of democratic rights.

Studies have documented that more than half of non-union workers would join a union if given the opportunity, and have shown that nearly 90% of union workers would vote to keep their existing union. Passage of this bill would put US law on par with labor laws that have been in place in other developed democracies for years. Nationally, productivity has jumped 20% in the last six years, but wages have stagnated at around 2%. Access to healthcare, job safety, social mobility, and retirement have declined as well, impacting Illinois disproportionally, and to a lesser extent the Chicago area. Even former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has expressed concern over the economic consequences of this trend. In a city that still wears its working-class heritage on its sleeve, a bill like this has ramifications for the middle class for years to come.