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GUEST COLUMN: Employee Free Choice Act would empower workers to unionize

Tuesday, February 3, 2009 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:16 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A core principle of democracy is to “let the voters decide.”  Yet an initiative petition filed here in Missouri aims to stop workers from democratically deciding how they would join a union in their workplace. 

A business-backed group called SOS Ballot Missouri is making the sensational claim that a modest piece of proposed federal labor law reform called the Employee Free Choice Act would “do away with secret ballot elections for union representation.” In fact that legislation restores democratic rights at a time when workers need a stronger voice in the workplace more than ever.

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The Employee Free Choice Act does not end secret ballot elections. In fact, the law would change nothing about how unions are formed. Under current law, a union is recognized when employees demonstrate support from a majority of the workforce. That majority can be shown through signing authorization cards, signing a petition or by having a secret ballot election.  

Pending legislation would only change who gets to choose how to form the union. It would make that the choice of the workers instead of the choice of their boss.  Under the Employee Free Choice Act, even as few as 30 percent of the workers can request a secret ballot election.

Why does putting the choice of how to form a union in the hands of the workers scare the funders of SOS Ballot Missouri?  A 2005 survey by national polling firm Peter D. Hart Research Associates showed that 57 million workers would form a union tomorrow if given the chance.  

It is very important that workers have a choice in how they unionize. Most citizens don’t know that workplace elections work nothing like how we elect our mayor or state representatives or even the PTA president. The employer controls when and where the election happens. They are allowed to bombard employees with anti-union messages anywhere, anytime in the workplace. Representatives of the union have no right to set foot in the workplace.

We would never allow our politicians to continue to draw out their campaigns until they got to the point where they thought they would win, but that is exactly what we allow companies to do under the current National Labor Relations Board election system.  

United States workplace elections are so unfair that in 2000, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the abuse of workers’ freedom of association in the United States.  Employers hold the livelihood of their workers’ families in their hands.  Shamefully, too many employers abuse that power.  Research by Cornell University showed that during union elections more than half of employers threaten to close the workplace if a union is formed.

The 1993-2003 National Labor Relations Board Annual Reports indicate an average of 22,633 U.S. workers per year were ordered to receive backpay from their employers. The National Labor Relations Board orders backpay awards to workers who were illegally fired, demoted, laid off, suspended without pay, or denied work by their employers as a result of the workers' union activity.  In other words, every 23 minutes, a worker is fired or discriminated against for their support of a union.

While giving workers more rights may scare some business interests, it shouldn’t scare us.  The whole community benefits when unions are stronger.  It’s not a coincidence that as union membership has declined, we’ve seen a shrinking middle class, more low-paying jobs and a huge increase in the number of people without health insurance.  The gap between rich and poor has grown wider in the U.S. than in any other industrialized nation.  

Higher levels of union membership help raise living standards for all workers.   Strong unions set a pay standard that nonunion employers follow. States where many workers are union members have lower poverty rates, better schools, more people with health insurance and less crime than states where few people are union members. Social Security, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act — unions united workers to win each of these important landmarks in American policy.  

SOS Ballot’s disingenuous rhetoric about “secret ballots” cloaks this Missouri ballot initiative’s very real attempt to further constrict the ways workers can regain some control of their economic future by forming a union. Right now, Congress is debating billions in federal dollars for job creation as our best shot to turn the economy around. Modest reforms like the Employee Free Choice Act would help ensure that new jobs bring a restored economic security for our families and our communities.

Herb Johnson is the Secretary-Treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO. The Rev. Amy Cortright from Calvary Episcopal Church in Columbia, is a member of the Missouri Jobs with Justice coalition.


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