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Fire In The House


Georgia Rep. John Lewis is among lawmakers taking a strong stand for workers' freedom to form unions.

We’re still celebrating passage of the Employee Free Choice Act by the U.S. House, which, on Thursday, voted 241–185to ensure America’s workers have a more level playing field on the job when they try to form unions. The bill also is about economic justice: Full-time workers in unions had median weekly earnings of $833 in 2006, compared with $642 for their nonunion counterparts, and are far more likely to have good health and retirement security. 

House Democrats voted down every ugly amendment Republicans proposed—originally there were more than a dozen—including one that essentially would have made the entire nation fall under laws similar to those in most southern states that make it nearly impossible to form unions. (Find out how your representative voted here.)

The next step will be to introduce the bill in the U.S. Senate, where it faces many more obstacles. We are encouraging everyone who hasn’t already e-mailed their senators to do so, as we build momentum among those lawmakers. Over the weekend, the bill got some high-profile attention from Sen. Barak Obama (D-Ill.), who rallied with workers at Resurrection Health Care in Chicago and promised the Senate would pass Employee Free Choice. Resurrection workers have faced relentless employer harassment in their four-year fight for a union with AFSCME, a struggle I’ve described in a previous FDL post here. (All Democratic candidates for president in the Senate support the Employee Free Choice Act.)

The House floor debate on the bill was incredibly inspiring. Watching it on C-Span really brought home the twisted and one-sided nature of mainstream media reporting on issues of vital importance to us in the nation. Democrats’ speeches weren’t equivocating or insipid, as they often are made to sound in print quotes or sound bites. They were impassioned, no-holds-barred statements in support of working families and the freedom to form unions.

Most congressional Democrats made clear they understand the key role of unions in strengthening America’s struggling middle class—the more workers in unions, the better pay and family-supportive wages more of us will have, raising the bar from the bare-bones minimum now set by the likes of Wal-Mart. Meanwhile, many of the Republicans who spoke dispelled the notion so often conveyed by many media outlets that all Republicans are the voices of reason. Their often shrill, near-hysteria against a bill that would help America’s workers and is supported by the public, prompted California Rep. George Miller to say at one point in the debate:

      This…shows how much you hate workers. 

Miller, who sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act, along with 233 co-sponsors, now is head of the House Committee on Education and Labor and has pushed hard over the years to gain momentum for the bill.

To their credit, the following Republicans voted for the Employee Free Choice Act: Alaska Rep. Don Young; Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays; Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter; New Jersey Reps. Frank LoBiondo, Jim Saxton, Mike Ferguson and Chris Smith; New York Reps. Peter King, James Walsh, John McHugh and Vito Fossella; Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette; and Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Murphy. (And a slap to the lone Democrat who voted against it: Oklahoma Rep. Dan Boren.)

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer from Maryland, another long-time supporter of workers’ freedom to form unions, asserted the bill is about addressing the increasing gap between the very rich and the rest of us.

    It is absolutely essential to stop this growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. It is a challenge to our country. The current system of choosing a union is broken and undemocratic.

Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio) continued that theme, saying the Bush administration insists the economy is moving. But in his district,

    the jobs are moving overseas. Workers who belong to unions earn 30 percent more in wages. They are more likely to have health insurance and pensions and better opportunities in life.

The evening before the vote, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) hosted a conference call for the netroots with us, along with three workers who had tried to form unions. Andrews isn’t a household name—but he should be. He spoke without notes and with such dynamism and fervor for working families that firebrands like legendary UAW President Walter Reuther would have been proud. As Andrews said:

    Coercive employers determined to obstruct any effort to allow workers to organize have eroded the basic underpinnings of middle class life: decent wages and benefits.

    Even if workers successfully organize a union under current law, the deck is so heavily stacked against them that the employer can choose to ignore recognition of the union. While the employer has a choice to ignore the union without recourse, the worker has no choice without the risk of being fired.

When the House finally beat back Republicans’ last-ditch efforts to kill the bill—by offering a motion to send it back to committee—Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a point of returning to the Speaker’s chair to announce the vote totals. Pelosi, for whom passage of the Employee Free Choice Act has been a top a priority, said passing the Employee Free Choice Act is an extension of the pledge of allegiance that representatives proudly recite each morning:

    This is the most important labor law reform legislation of this generation.

    This bill puts democracy back into workplace and gives the right to freely choose a union. We demand this around the world and we should demand the same for workers in America.

    Every day when we begin Congress with the pledge of allegiance, we clearly enunciate “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.” We dishonor our pledge and God if we don’t work to promote justice for all workers.

With all the many quibbles and outright frustrations we have about our own representatives and others in Congress, it’s great to see the flames of passion flash bright and strong for working people and their values of hard work and fair play—the fundamental sources of strength that long have fueled this nation’s prosperity.

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