A new battle over the right to organize

November 21, 2008

Lee Sustar talks to labor activists about what it will take to win the Employee Free Choice Act.

A MAJOR battle is brewing between organized labor and Corporate America over the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), legislation backed by President-elect Barack Obama that would make it far easier for workers to join unions.

"What you are going to see is a massive fight in this country about the Employee Free Choice Act," said Greg Denier, a spokesperson for the Change to Win (CTW) labor federation.

"That is both literal and symbolic, because the Employee Free Choice Act is a question of power in the workplace and power in the economy. This election was not only about changing the occupant of the White House, but changing the power equation of society."

If EFCA passes, union recognition by employers would be automatic whenever 50 percent plus one of workers in a given workplace sign union cards--which is why the process is often referred to as "card check." EFCA would also penalize employers that refuse to negotiate a first contract with the union or otherwise violate workers' right to organize.

Union members rally on the steps of the Capitol in support of the Employee Free Choice Act
Union members rally on the steps of the Capitol in support of the Employee Free Choice Act (Larry Downing | Reuters)

Such legislation could break through the wall of employer intimidation and anti-union labor laws that have reduced union membership to just 12.1 percent of workers, and only 7.5 percent in the private sector.

According to a Peter D. Hart poll, about half of all workers--some 60 million people--say they would join a union if they could. If even only half of them were to do so, it would be the greatest growth in organized labor in more than half a century. That's why Randel Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said of EFCA: "This will be Armageddon."

Business therefore tried to make EFCA an issue in the November 4 elections to try to curb Democratic gains in Congress.

In North Carolina, which has anti-union "right-to-work" laws, employer groups sponsored pre-election television ads featuring a goon with a baseball bat threatening workers who don't join the union. And according to South Carolina AFL-CIO President Donna DeWitt, South Carolina State Sen. Hugh Leatherman is reportedly planning a lawsuit against EFCA on the grounds that it violates "state's rights"--the spurious legal doctrine used to defend racial segregation in the South.

WITH OBAMA in the White House and a bigger Democratic majority in Congress, labor's hopes of passing EFCA are high--not least because of Obama's explicit and emphatic support for the legislation.

"It's time we had a president who didn't choke when he said the word union,"
Obama said at the CTW convention in Chicago on September 25, 2007. "It's not that hard. Union. Union. Nothing happens when you say it--other than give people some inspiration and some sense that maybe they've got a fighting chance...

"That's why I was one of the leaders fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. That's why I'm fighting for it in the Senate, and that's why I will sign that bill when I become president of the United States of America."

"I've walked picket lines before," Obama added. "I've got some comfortable shoes at home. If it's hot outside, then I've got a hat. If it's cold outside, I've got a jacket. But if you are being denied your rights, I don't care whether I'm in the United States Senate, or in the White House, I will make sure I am marching with you on the picket lines, because that's what I believe in--making sure that workers have rights."

In response to a question about EFCA from a worker, Obama replied, "I won't just wait for the bill to reach my desk. I will work actively as part of my agenda to make sure that it reaches my desk...

"Everybody talks a lot about unions when they're trying to get the union endorsements. And then the general election comes, and then there's not much mention of unions. And then you win the presidency, and then you just stop talking about unions at all.

"And as a consequence, you've got a lot of people all across America who could use a union, but they're never hearing about it, they're never encouraged to join, they're never given a sense that being part of a union--that's as American as apple pie.

"That's the reason we've got the minimum wage. That's the reason we've got the 40-hour workweek. That's the reason we've got overtime. That's the reason workers are treated fairly and safely on the job. Our children have to hear that. Everybody's got to hear it.

"And that's what the president can do is use the bully pulpit: 'Join the union--there's nothing wrong with it.' That's number one, because that sets the context for the debate in Washington."

OBAMA'S SPEECH practically invites organized labor to revive a slogan used in the early days of Franklin Roosevelt's administration: "Your president wants you to join a union."

Unlike Obama, Roosevelt didn't actually call for workers to unionize. Rather, he backed legislation to shore up crisis-ridden businesses that included a rather vague guarantee of workers' right to organize and bargain collectively--something the employers interpreted as a green light for boss-controlled company unions.

The left wing of the labor movement, however, seized the opportunity and launched the widespread organizing drives that gave rise to the Congress of Industrial Organizations a few years later.

A similar grassroots effort will be required to turn EFCA into a vehicle for a new wave of unionization. Donna DeWitt of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, for one, is concerned that the law "doesn't go far enough" in penalizing employers for anti-union behavior.

"In South Carolina, those protections for workers are more important than the card check," she said. "Our history shows that we can win union elections, but we can't make them come to the table and negotiate with us."

DeWitt also expects that if the card-check provision looks set to pass Congress, the employers will insist on an equally expedited means to decertify unions as well, keeping unions under constant pressure.

Other labor activists question whether the passage of EFCA would launch a revival of organizing, given the bureaucratic organizing methods used by most unions.

"With the United Auto Workers (UAW), you can give them employee free choice and they'll blow it," said Gregg Shotwell, a longtime member of UAW Local 2151 in Michigan and founder of the Soldiers of Solidarity rank-and-file group that has collaborated with workers trying to organize the big nonunion Toyota plant in Georgetown, Ky. The UAW has failed to organize a single foreign-owned auto assembly plant.

"The UAW doesn't know what unionism is anymore," Shotwell added, pointing to huge concessions in the UAW's recent auto industry contracts and collaboration with management to try to block the reinstatement of the Freightliner Five--five union leaders fired for leading a strike at a North Carolina truck plant that they had organized just a few years earlier.

For some in the labor movement, EFCA could provide an opportunity to bypass unions they view as unresponsive--or worse--toward immigrant workers.

"The Service Employees International Union, UNITE HERE and the United Farm Workers tried to divide the immigrant rights movement and force a vision of immigration reform acceptable to the unions, including a guest worker program," said Nativo López, president of the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA).

Because of those policies, López said, MAPA and its sister organization, Hermandad Mexicana, will launch a new, independent union on December 14. If EFCA passes, the new union will grow quickly, he said.

Elsewhere, immigrant rights organizers are launching independent unions not because they're opposed to working with established unions, but because existing unions often aren't interested in organizing the small factories that increasingly rely on immigrant labor. Martín Unzueta, an organizer with the Chicago Workers' Collaborative, said that his group is in the process of registering as a labor union, in part because of the prospect of using EFCA.

These independent efforts could help set an example for grassroots organizing methods in major cities. But there's no doubt that the AFL-CIO, CTW and local labor councils will be pouring money and resources into the legislative fight.

"The labor movement has shown signs that it has learned from past errors, from when Bill Clinton took over," said James Thindwa, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice.

"Many labor leaders saw themselves as junior partners to the Clinton administration rather than an ally that needed to be pushed hard for a progressive agenda. What we got was NAFTA, welfare reform and a lot of really nasty things because there was a failure to push him."

Today, labor hopes that things will be different with Obama, and is putting money and resources into ensuring that they will be.

But getting EFCA passed into law--and the success of union drives in the future--will require a greater mobilization and activism than labor has seen in many years. Everyone who wants to see workers organize to fight for their interests should get involved.

Further Reading

From the archives