Labor, EFCA, and the Obama Administration

Barack Obama enjoyed strong support from organized labor during his historic campaign for the White House.  Now, labor leaders and grassroots union activists are looking to the new President to put his political weight behind the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

EFCA’s most notable provision holds that if a majority of workers sign authorization cards that say they want union representation, then the employer must recognize that union and agree to bargain collectively.  This allows unions to bypass costly and contentious campaigns, during which many employers pressure and intimidate workers into voting against union representation.

EFCA also calls for mediation and arbitration to be used to facilitate collective bargaining agreements for newly recognized unions and beefs up penalties for unfair labor practices.  Overall, EFCA is designed to effectuate the original intent behind the National Labor Relations Act, which is to include collective bargaining as a key component in an American system of employment relations.

Obama expressed support for EFCA during the campaign, but many are wondering whether it will be a legislative priority during the early period of his presidency.  Organized labor sees EFCA as a vitally important legal tool towards reviving union membership rolls and worker power in America.  Given the intense employer opposition to EFCA at a time when a new President needs all hands on deck to deal with the economic crisis, it will be interesting to see how Obama navigates this one.

Fifty years ago, American business regarded labor unions as a pesky, sometimes difficult, but inevitable presence, according them — reluctantly perhaps — a seat at the table in the world of industrial relations.  Since then, we have witnessed an unprecedented amount of money and resources being devoted to bring down unions and defeat union organizing drives.

I support unions because, warts and all, they are necessary for maintaining and building a middle class and for serving as a source of countervailing power against the enormous ability of American business to shape the national and global policy agenda.  A strong, inclusive labor movement is a central key towards affirming dignity for all workers.  EFCA is a meaningful step forward towards that end.

If you want to learn more, here are some helpful links:

For an article by journalist Esther Kaplan in The Nation magazine examining the political fight over EFCA from a perspective sympathetic to the labor movement, go to: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090126/kaplan.

For a short briefing paper explaining and supporting EFCA that I helped to author for Americans for Democratic Action, go to: http://www.adaction.org/media/EFCA.pdf.

American Rights at Work is a labor-friendly research and advocacy group engaging in extensive public education about EFCA: http://www.americanrightsatwork.org/employee-free-choice-act/home-102/.

For a thought provoking piece by Professor Roy Adams that says EFCA does not go far enough to affirm and protect the dignity of workers, go to: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/labor_studies_journal/v031/31.4adams.pdf.

For a contrary view, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is putting maximum resources into opposing EFCA and unions in general: http://www.uschamber.com/unions.htm.

9 responses

  1. On balance, NLRB elections are not “free” or “fair.” As a labor attorney, and a former union president, it has been my experience that in more than 2/3 of campaigns to form a union, an employer will somehow retaliate against employees. I have seen union supporters fired or otherwise punished (e.g. pay cuts, suspensions, or schedule reductions). Other times, I have seen the boss humiliate employees b/c they supported a union, things like removing an employee’s office door, moving a worker’s desk into the hallway, conducting surprise performance reviews. These hostile actions scare not only the worker directly affected, but send a message to every worker that they should vote against the union. Even when workers are not directly threatened, in almost every single campaign I have been involved in, the employer has forced employees to sit through captive-audience meetings, which are mandatory meetings (often hours long) at which management berates employees for their “stupid” choice of supporting a union. (For those who think that employers should have the free speech to campaign against the union, remember that these meetings are mandatory. In no other realm of free speech is an audience forced to listen.) This is the backdrop against which most NLRB elections are held.

    This reality is what makes the Chamber-of-Commerce-style campaign against the Emp. Free Choice Act so insulting. The COC argues that EFCA takes choices away from workers b/c of the change to the election process, when in fact the opposite is true. While I’m sure there is an example somewhere, I have never seen a worker bullied into signing a union card. In my experience, workers opposed to the union have never hesitated to say thanks but no thanks. The reason? Unions don’t have the power to punish employees like employers do. There is no meaningful threat a union can make against an employee–the union can’t fire a worker, or cut his pay, but the boss can.

  2. The anti-EFCA drumbeat is sounding so over the top at times that I wonder if this means the legislation is very close to becoming law.

    Is President Obama willing to risk some political capital and that 80+% approval rating to see EFCA through at this juncture? Can he summon his remarkable rhetorical skills to recast unions in a positive light again?

  3. Hi Gary, I checked your own site and saw that we probably aren’t in agreement on many of these issues, which makes your gracious note especially appreciated.

    -David

  4. I totally agree with James. Although my job involves membership to a union, I intentially lack involvement in it for political reasons. A former colleage said that staff in the administration began “critisizing” her work when she started going to union meetings. The bottom line is that the company, not the union has the power to fire.

  5. That’s so nice that Mr. Shaw lives in a blissful world where employees can say “thanks but no thanks” to a union organizer approaching them to “just sign the card”. As an HR representative at paper mills, pharmaceutical, and high tech companies I’ve had numerous employees in my office in tears and scared witless because union organizers will not quit harassing them at work or at their homes to “just sign the card”. They get shunned at work by their co-workers and are put under constant mental duress. Contrary to Mr Shaw’s naive opinion, Unions do indeed have the power to punish employees. While it’s true they can’t cut their pay or fire them, union organizers in the workplace can entice others to ostracize the reluctant employees and make their lives absolutely miserable at work and at home. The only safety net the employee has now is that they can voice their true opinions in the secret confines of the private voting booth. The EFCA will take away that sanctuary. The last time I looked, secret voting was the bedrock of a democracy. A non-secret ballot is the bedrock of fascism.

    • Carl, thank you for putting forth a contrary view on EFCA that raises a valid concern. My own belief is that employers still have a significant upper hand in pressuring workers to vote against a union and that what you view as a safety net inures to the benefit of the employer more than any other party. Based on unfair labor practice complaints, by far the greater problem is employer intimidation of workers and union supporters.

      -David

  6. Pingback: Battle looming over labor law reform « Minding the Workplace

  7. Pingback: More on the Employee Free Choice Act « Minding the Workplace

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