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Why Employees Need Free Choice to Join Unions: Let’s Cut to the Chase

Saturday’s New York Times had a lengthy piece by Steven Greenhouse about the growing chorus for the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would restore free choice for people who want to join a union.

Towards the end of the article is a simple sentence that bears further examination, because it gets to the heart of why we need Employee Free Choice: the coercive campaign to which companies subject their employees in their efforts to stop workers from organizing.

Union officials say they do not dislike the secret ballot, but rather the lengthy, expensive, adversarial campaign before the vote in which companies often fire union supporters and use videos, large meetings and one-on-one sessions to pressure employees to vote against unionizing.

I’m going to attempt to cut to the core of why we need free choice restored for employees. Why do I say "restored"? Because for people who want to form a union today, there are essentially two ways you can do so:

  1. Work out an agreement with your employer to recognize the union when a majority of workers say they want one. (About 500,000 people have done this in the US in the last 5 years.)
  2. Get really lucky after your employer forces a "lengthy, expensive, adversarial" campaign when they refuse to recognize your union.

Hang with me here, because it’s really important to understand how this works in order to know why we need the Employee Free Choice Act.

Workers want to form or join a union because they feel the need to stand together with their colleagues to protect their interests on the job. Their interests could be things like workplace safety for construction workers, safe staffing levels for nurses, or decent wages and benefits for grocery store workers. They feel they’re not being respected or treated well enough, and they make the significant decision to come together in a union to stand up for each other.

Make no mistake: it’s a big deal for workers to take this step. You’re deciding to officially come together, to ask to negotiate collectively with your employer, to stand up for yourselves as a group so you can provide for your families.

At this point, people who want to form a union sign cards that express their intent to do so. Now, the law says the workers can request to vote for a union with only 30% of the employees who sign cards. But what usually happens is at least 50%, and usually upwards of 60% or 70%, of workers will sign cards saying they want to form a union. Like I said, it’s a big step to come this far, and in order to be successful you need to have strong solidarity among your coworkers.

Now once the employees know they have a majority of support for forming a union, they approach their employer and ask that the company recognize the employees’ union and sit down to negotiate a contract.

Here’s where the roads diverge. There are some companies who immediately recognize their employees’ unions. Indeed, some big name companies do just that, including AT&T, Harley Davidson, and Kaiser Permanente, because they see a partnership with their workers as a competitive advantage.

But many, many other companies laugh at the majority of workers who want a union, and demand that the majority of workers again show they want a union in a "secret ballot election,"– which occurs after what Greenhouse described as "the lengthy, expensive, adversarial campaign before the vote in which companies often fire union supporters and use videos, large meetings and one-on-one sessions to pressure employees to vote against unionizing."

What does this campaign look like?

About 49 percent of employers openly threaten to close down a worksite when faced with a unionization drive. Untold more tell individual workers, in captive meetings, that jobs will be lost. 30 percent make good on the threat in real time, firing workers who engage in union activities. 82 percent hire unionbusting consulting firms which teach them how to most effectively shutter a union drive while either technically staying in the limits of the law, or breaking it in such a way that the gains will outweigh the eventual fines.

"Get really lucky," as I called option #2 for how to form unions today, entails somehow retaining a majority of supporters of a union after the multi-week intimidation campaign carried out by the same people who write your paycheck.

I need to again quote Ezra Klein at length because he explains these intimidation campaigns so well:

You hear a fair amount of talk about card check — also known as the Employee Free Choice Act — and you hear a lot of folks on the Right earnestly wring their hands over the idea that if workers sign cards in order to unionize, they will be intimidated! Pressured! The sanctity of the secret vote will be shattered! Which would all be fair enough, if these same folks evinced even an ounce of concern that workers are currently being threatened, intimidated, and even fired if they dare try and organize. […]

Hearing the status quo defended as free and fair is like imagining a presidential election where you can vote however you’d like, but anyone who votes against the incumbent party is informed they will lose all access to Social Security, Medicare, and the protection of their local police and fire departments. Also, they’ll be audited. But nevertheless: Folks can vote however they want.

That’s the state of "free choice" in America for people who want to form unions. That’s why I said we need to restore free choice with the Employee Free Choice Act.

The Employee Free Choice Act says companies need to recognize their employees’ unions when a majority of them say they want to form a union. It’s a system called "majority sign-up" because it recognizes the democratic principle of 50% +1, and respects the workers’ free choice.

The Employee Free Choice Act has the support of almost every single Democrat in Congress, as well as some Republicans. In 2007 the bill cleared the House and got 51 votes in the Senate but was stopped by the threat of a Republican filibuster and veto by Bush. This year, a majority of voters support Employee Free Choice, and rejected a multi-million dollar campaign funded by wealthy CEOs opposed to the bill. Employee Free Choice is key to help rebuild the middle class. President-elect Obama supports Employee Free Choice and has promised to sign the bill as President.

Even though we will have President Obama and a solid pro-worker majority in the Senate, the Employee Free Choice Act is going to be a big battle. We’re encountering a well-funded opposition that’s dedicated to destroying this bill with false characterizations and misinformation.

But for the sake of America’s workers – for the chance to rebuild the middle class and make the American Dream a reality – the fight for the Employee Free Choice Act will be an essential one to win. Join our campaign to support Employee Free Choice.

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Michael Whitney

Michael Whitney

My name is Michael Whitney. I'm a progressive online organizer working with FDL Action. Rush Limbaugh called me "clueless" once. He went into rehab two days later.