Dems Introduce Vital Protections for Workers; Corporate America Responds With a Big Lie

On Tuesday, House Democrats introduced the Employee Free Choice Act, a vitally important package of protections that would help restore working people's much-denuded right to join a union if they so desire.  

There's nothing more terrifying to corporate America than the prospect of dealing with its workforce on an even playing field, and, along with its allies in Congress, it's pulling out all the stops to keep that from happening.

The Chamber of Commerce, D.C. lobbyists, firms that rely on cheap labor and a host of  "Astroturf" front groups have built a massive war chest they're using to try to defeat the EFCA and other efforts to put a check on corporate power and rebuild a declining middle class.  

The central message of their campaign is remarkably dishonest. America's professional union-busters have seized on a compelling talking point tailored to suit our political culture, namely that the "card-check" provision of the EFCA -- which allows workers to form a union if a  majority indicate they want one -- which does away with "secret ballots" that Americans have come to expect when casting a vote.

It is, in short, a Big Lie. There has never been a "right" to a secret ballot for union elections; in fact, most union organizing in recent decades has  been done via card check. The issue is this: It is currently up to the employer to decide whether their workers choose to organize via majority sign-up -- "card check" -- or through a National Labor Relations Board election. Under EFCA, workers themselves would get to make that call, not their bosses. 

It's an important distinction. Union busting has reached a high art form in the United States. Companies no longer need thugs and gun-toting Pinkertons to keep workers from exercising their legal rights to organize; now they have high-priced, Armani-wearing lawyers, who simply brainwash workers into silence. 

The tactics are as subtle as they are insidious. A study by Cornell University labor scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner found: 9 in 10 employers facing a union campaign force employees to attend closed-door meetings to hear anti-union propaganda; 80 percent train supervisors on how to attack unions and require them to deliver anti-union messages to workers they oversee; half of employers threaten to shut down the plant if workers unionize (only 2 percent actually do); and 3 out of 4 hire outside consultants to run anti-union campaigns, "often based on mass psychology and distorting the law." 

Increasingly, cunning forms of intimidation are often enough to produce a "no" vote. But if workers do vote to unionize, management is then able to dispute the outcome, and the case can drag on, often for years.

While it's pending, pro-union workers lose their jobs. A study published last year (PDF) by economists John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer found that "almost 1 in 5 union organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their activities in a union election campaign." 

That's illegal -- workers are guaranteed the right to organize -- but since the Reagan administration gutted U.S. labor protections, companies that cross the line pay modest penalties that can be written off as part of the cost of remaining union-free. 

Mike Elk, with the Campaign for America's Future, wrote … 

"If the penalty for robbing a bank was you had to post a piece of paper saying you robbed a bank, we'd all be bank robbers!" a longtime union organizer once said to me.

Currently, under U.S. labor law, the penalty for an employer that robs someone of their job for expressing their right to join a union is just that. They have to post a piece of paper saying they illegally fired an employee from their job.

That would change if EFCA passes. The bill beefs up penalties for union-busting campaigns and establishes an arbitration process that requires businesses to negotiate with their employees -- all of which is obscured by the corporate right's relentless focus on a nonexistent "right" to a secret ballot. 

Big Business commissioned a Zogby poll that's dangerously close to the political "push-polls" of campaign infamy. The questions were remarkably dishonest, and the results were what the pollsters and their clients were looking for. 

Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: "Every worker should continue to have the right to a federally supervised secret ballot election when deciding whether to organize a union."

Nine out of 10 respondents agreed, including 87 percent of Democrats. That's to be expected; the strategy is to depict management's assault on the ability to organize as protecting "workers' rights." Seven out of 10 respondents said they'd be less likely to vote for a member of Congress "who voted in favor of taking away a worker's right to have a federally supervised secret ballot election to decide whether to organize a union." 

Armed with their push-poll, the right's noise machine has been typically disciplined, and all corners of the conservative movement are on message: " 'Big Labor' wants to do away with secret ballots, and it's pulling the Democrats' strings to make it happen." They've taken that spin and synchronized it across the conservative communications infrastructure -- from business-funded think tanks to right-wing blogs; from the Wall Street Journal editorial page to lawmakers walking the halls of Congress. 

So far, it appears to be an effective campaign of distraction, with the corporate media dancing right along with the union-busters' tune. The importance of pushing back couldn't be clearer -- the state of working America is dismal, and while EFCA won't be a magic bullet, it's an important start

So this would be a good week to call your representative, write a letter to your local paper's editor or talk with some friends about the importance of passing a bill that would help restore working people's ability to join a union.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.