Bush Poised to Veto Long-Sought Labor Reform

For years, companies have been keeping workers from exercising their legal rights to organize and exacerbating America's income and wealth inequality. A new bill could help reverse that trend, but does it stand a chance against Bush's veto pen?
One of the most important bills for working Americans of the last 10 years is likely to go down in defeat, even though Democrats control Congress. The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is an anti-union-busting measure that would restore the right to form unions, a right working people have enjoyed mostly on paper since the "Reagan revolution" stacked the deck against workers trying to organize. The House passed the bill last month, but it's widely expected to be defeated in the Senate, and if it does survive, it will almost certainly fall to George Bush's veto pen.

If EFCA is defeated, it will carry little or no political cost, largely because America's corporatocracy has done a bang-up job of framing the debate. A coalition of big business groups conducted a wildly misleading poll, one that gave respondents the (false) idea that the bill will diminish rather than protect workers' rights -- specifically, their right to a fair vote about whether to unionize. They've taken that spin and synchronized it across the whole of the conservative communications infrastructure -- from business-funded think tanks to right-wing blogs, to the Wall Street Journal editorial page to lawmakers walking the halls of Congress.

But while the right's rhetoric has been in perfect lockstep, the bill's been pushed almost exclusively by organized labor, with too little outreach to the broader progressive movement and little in the way of a coordinated and effective message. As a result, the media's characterized it as a "union bill" -- which plays to the idea that it's driven by "special interests" -- and it's likely to die a quiet death with little notice among the general public.

Given the Democratic control of Congress and the debilitated state of working America, this is a tragedy. The need for reform is urgent. 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 that: nine 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 organize; and three out of four 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. If organizers manage to get and win a vote among workers to unionize, management is 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 this year (PDF) by economists John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer found that "almost one in five 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.

The result has been predictable: Between 1975 and 2004, the rate of union workers in the private sector fell by almost two thirds (PDF). In 2000, only one in seven American employees were covered by a collective bargaining agreement, while two-thirds of all workers in the rest of world's highly advanced economies enjoyed that protection.

The decline in union membership can account, at least in part, for exploding income and wealth inequality. As economist Dean Baker writes in his new book, "The United States Since 1980," in the 20 years following the election of Ronald Reagan, "the share of national income that went to the richest 5 percent of families rose by more than one-third … [while] the share of income going to the poorest 20 percent of the population fell by more than 25 percent."

A stronger labor movement would go a long way towards reversing that trend. Unionized workers earn 15 percent more than their non-union counterparts, have more vacation time and are more likely to have employer-funded pensions and health insurance (PDF).

A strong labor movement isn't only vital for union members; labor's decline over the past three decades is at least partially to blame for American workers' loss of benefits and job security, for a dysfunctional immigration system, for the near absence of family and medical leave and for the easy passage of NAFTA-style corporate investment deals, despite Americans' widespread unhappiness with their outcomes.

Healthy unions lift up all working people; economists have long discussed the "union threat effect" -- that employers offer higher pay and better benefits to workers who don't belong to a union in order to keep them from joining one.

The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is simple: It beefs up penalties for employers who violate workers' rights under the law, creates a mediation and arbitration system for disputes, and allows workers to form a union if a majority simply sign a card saying they want representation (a summary of the measure can be found here). This bill alone won't reverse the long decline of American labor -- union organizers say more is needed to create a truly level playing field -- but it would be a huge step in the right direction.

EFCA is an enormous threat to the leisure class -- in 2004, the share of national income going to workers was the lowest since they started tracking the data in 1929, while corporate profits were at an all-time high -- and the campaign they've mounted to kill the measure shows that, regardless of how much George W. Bush's presidency damaged the conservative movement, the Right still has significant advantages in steering the debate.

According to "RollCall," "Deep-pocketed corporate lobbying groups have joined together [to kill EFCA], today announcing the launch of a new coalition to coordinate their activities." The industry group, called the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, "has the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Business, among others." The group sponsored a series of ads attacking lawmakers who supported the measure in key House districts and is expected to ratchet up the campaign in the Senate.

The coalition's spin makes no mention of beefing up penalties for violating workers' rights or creating new dispute-settlement procedures; instead, they seized on a compelling talking point tailored to America's political culture: That the "card-check" provision of the EFCA does away with the secret ballots that Americans have come to expect when casting their votes.

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 ten 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 ten 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; 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.

Perhaps EFCA will defy expectations and become law (you can help out here). If it doesn't, it will be, in part, because progressive institutions -- the blogosphere, labor, liberal Democrats -- haven't yet developed the kind of close coordination the Right can still muster. Missing is a nice, easy-to-understand alternative narrative -- something like: "End the Stalinist election process," or "the Soviets also had secret ballots" -- and the infrastructure needed to repeat that message over and over again.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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