Employee Free Choice Act—Why workers need it
By Cheryl LaBash
On Feb. 4, thousands of workers delivered boxes of signed cards supporting the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) to Congress in Washington, D.C. The cards represent more than 1.5 million signers from every U.S. state. On Feb. 5, workers in California marched 10 miles in the rain from downtown Los Angeles to the Westwood Federal Building dramatically demanding passage of the EFCA.
Meanwhile, corporations, banks and business associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are heavily financing public relations and lobbying campaigns to defeat it. The U.S. Senate “millionaires’ club” has even balked at confirming Hilda Solis, President Barack Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Labor, because Solis supports the EFCA.
What is the Employee Free Choice Act?
EFCA legislation proposes to block bosses who try to stop or delay union certification through intimidation, threats or firing pro-union workers. Under the EFCA when a majority of workers sign cards and choose direct union certification instead of an election, the bosses will be required to begin negotiations for the initial contract. Binding arbitration can be used to reach two-year contracts if those negotiations fail. For the first time, penalties including triple back pay and fines can be levied against the bosses for “unfair labor practices.”
Both union federations, Change to Win and the AFL-CIO, as well as the independent United Electrical workers—whose members occupied the Republic Windows and Doors factory in December—actively champion the EFCA.
The fight for union representation at Smithfield Packing in Tarheel, N.C., shows why workers need the EFCA. In December the mostly African-American and Latina/o workforce won union representation with the United Food and Commercial Workers after a 15-year struggle. On a good day, working conditions at the gargantuan hog slaughtering and processing plant are cold, wet, grueling and dangerous.
Union supporter Lorena Ramos’ personal story is on YouTube.com. She was arrested in the plant by company police in 2004. Held inside the plant, hit in the face with a folder and told she had “no rights,” even to call and check on her children, Smithfield officials tried to intimidate her to sign documents she did not understand.
One-on-one anti-union meetings with the front line supervisor are forced on workers in 78 percent of organizing efforts (aflcio.org), and even when workers win their right to a union, nearly half of new union certifications never get a contract.
Who’s opposing the EFCA?
The National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and banking interests are all pumping money into a public relations campaign to defeat the EFCA.
The Huffington Post reported that on Oct. 17, Bank of America, only three days after receiving a $25 billion bailout, hosted a conference-call meeting with AIG, Home Depot chief Bernie Marcus, corporate lobbyist Rick Berman and others to raise anti-EFCA funds.
According to SourceWatch.org, Berman, formerly a labor law director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, currently runs the misnamed Center for Union Facts, which attacks the EFCA. Big business isn’t only anti-union. Berman also opposed the Americans with Disabilities Act, supported using the Alar apple pesticide and backed the tobacco industry.
Struggle won NLRA of 1935
The EFCA is a pro-labor amendment to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Rising out of the economic depression that followed the 1929 stock market crash, by 1935 an upsurge of pitched battles including general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco asserted workers’ power.
Won by workers in the streets, the NLRA for the first time legally recognized workers’ rights to “self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organization, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing ... and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”
U.S. unions were formerly outlawed as conspiracies. Still the NLRA did not include agricultural, domestic or railroad workers, thus excluding many African-American, Latina/o and Asian workers.
By developing a framework to mediate the class struggle, the NLRA was a concession to “protect commerce.” Its opening paragraphs state so plainly: “Experience has proved that protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively safeguards commerce from injury, impairment, or interruption ... by restoring equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.”
Although today’s mouthpieces for the bosses and bankers claim the EFCA is unfair, it’s only a small step toward overcoming the inherent and extreme bias favoring management in capitalist labor relations. The same corporate interests fighting the EFCA today wrote the anti-union 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.
Taft-Hartley levies steep penalties, including injunctions and fines, if workers and their unions exercise their NLRA rights. It allows bosses “free-speech” rights to interfere in organizing (“Low Wage Capitalism,” p. 251) and encouraged the state-by-state “right-to-work” laws enacted predominantly in the South—with its history of enslaved Black labor—and in the West to create internal low-wage havens.
In “Low Wage Capitalism,” Fred Goldstein notes: “The bosses have the right to get ‘mutual aid’ from other bosses—who buy their products, for example, and thus help them with revenue while workers are losing pay by being out on strike. Big capitalists get lines of credit from the banks in preparation for and during strikes, and thus engage in ‘concerted activity’ against the workers. But workers are forbidden to ask for or receive ‘mutual aid and protection’ through the ‘concerted activities’ of other unions in the form of sympathy strikes or boycotts, etc.”
Passage of the EFCA won’t end the class struggle or repeal Taft-Hartley, but will improve workers’ chances to gain a union.