LABOUR-US: Senate Divided Over Bill to Boost Unions

  • by Henry Parr (new york)
  • Tuesday, June 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

An amendment to the National Labour Relations Act, the EFCA is meant to streamline union certification, redefine collective bargaining and arbitration, and institute harsher penalties on employers who discriminate or discharge employees on the basis of their union membership or ties.

Advocates for the bill view the EFCA as a positive change that could give employees easier access to unions, and more influence in negotiating wages and benefits.

'I see the EFCA as a tool to help us build a more equitable future,' said Dominique Apollon, research director at the Applied Research Centre, a public policy think tank.

'The big misconception is that the marketplace, free of government control, will lead to a fair distribution of economic productivity, and that's just not true, just not the case,' she told IPS. 'So the EFCA is really a tool to make sure workers receive a more equitable share of the rising economic productivity.'

'Union membership will allow for much more equitable negotiation, again, individual workers are much more vulnerable to intimidation and to firing in our current system and that's just not fair. The EFCA will impose harsher penalties on corporations that intimidate workers who do want to unionise,' Apollon said.

The most divisive change in the EFCA regards union certification. Currently, employers or employees can ask for a secret ballot, carried out by the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) to determine whether a union should be recognised. Under the EFCA, the NLRB would grant union certification after a majority of employees sign authorisation cards.

Both secret-ballot elections and majority card authorisations are criticised for being susceptible to intimidation tactics.

Critics of the bill say union organisers are able to coerce and intimidate workers into signing cards, and that secret-ballot elections, carried out by the NLRB, are a more reliable method.

'Those cards can be signed in bars, at your home. They'll sometimes go to your home, with two or three organisers and try to pressure people into signing union cards,' said Philip Wilson of the Labour Relations Institute, an anti-union consulting firm.

'Our view is that the best way to ensure that everybody has a safe way to decide whether they want to have a union or not is to have a secret ballot election observed by the government, to make sure that neither side is exerting undue influence on the voters,' he told IPS.

Advocates of the bill however, say that employers are more likely to engage in intimidation tactics. Josh Goldstein, a spokesperson for American Rights at Work, a workers' rights group, countered by citing a University of Illinois study which examined intimidation tactics in both elections and card-checks.

'During NLRB elections, 46 percent of workers said that they felt intimidation and coercion on behalf of the employer and in majority sign-up campaigns, only 4.6 percent of workers said that they felt the presence of a union organiser created any pressure for them to sign the card. The intimidation is coming from the employers not the union,' Goldstein said.

He also brought up the component of the EFCA that would impose harsher penalties on employers who punish employees for supporting unions.

'Right now, there are literally no penalties for employers who violate the law. There's usually a slap on the wrist, they have to post a notice, and if a worker makes it through the grueling NRLB process, they can be reinstated with back pay, minus anything they've made in the meantime,' he explained.

'So really, there's no penalty or incentive for employers to follow the law, and we see that. We see over 30 percent of employers firing pro-union employees during organising campaigns - the illegal action on behalf of employers is out of control.'

The EFCA would impose fines of up to 20,000 dollars, give triple back pay to workers who were fired, and immediately reinstate workers that the NLRB find have been fired illegally.

With the current economic recession, and unemployment at 9.4 percent, many see the EFCA as a bill that could have a noticeable effect on the economy. Some critics see the EFCA as an intrusion of the federal government on the private business sector.

Danny Diaz, a spokesperson for the Workforce Fairness Institute, a business advocacy group, told IPS how the bill would change arbitration.

'You put in place the government arbitrator who is unaware of the particular space the business operates in, particular industry, and this person mandates contract terms on a business that will impair that business - and that's exactly what this legislation does,' he said.

'Small business is the number one job creator in America, and to have the government come in and essentially take over and mandate the businesses and how they should run is a huge threat to their ability to exist in what is already a very challenging economic environment.'

But Goldstein told IPS that arbitration would not be drastically changed. 'Even after the arbitrator sets the contract, both parties still have the ability to look at that contract and if they both disagree, they can either line-edit it or they have the ability throw it out completely and continue the bargaining process,' he said.

He said the bill would strengthen the middle class and help the economy.

'The Centre for American Progress put out a report that said that just a 5 percent increase in union membership could pump up to 25 and a half billion dollars back into the economy,' he said.

'If we truly want to make an economy that works for everyone and get our economy back on track we have to give workers the ability to bargain. The strength of the economy is built on the back of the middle-class and you can't have strong middle class without strong union labour,' he said.

Harkin is currently meeting with Senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Jim Webb of Virginia, in order to put together a newer 'compromise' draft.

With both unions and union advocacy groups putting pressure on Congress, the bill puts moderate Democrats in a difficult position.

Furthermore, as business advocates and opponents to the bill continue to frame their argument around the economic crisis, and the right to have a secret ballot, a practice that has been used and, as Diaz puts it, is 'a basic right in a democracy, a right that Americans have fought to defend', politicians may have a difficult time voting for the bill.

Proponents of the bill however, see the EFCA as a regulation, which ultimately will only help employees who need representation.

Apollon told IPS, 'Regulations, if we really look at it, are a good thing. Regulations serve as a moral standard to temper the free market, because the free market itself does not produce a fair world.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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