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Sticking to the Union

In response to:

Time for a New Deal from the September 25, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

Jeff Madrick’s article “Time for a New Deal” [NYR, September 25, 2008] noted that

much can…be done by providing fair opportunities for unions to organize, and by seriously enforcing the labor laws and imposing harsher penalties for violating them. The Employee Free Choice Act introduced by [then] Senator Obama, among others, will be a good test.

Madrick is right. The Employee Free Choice Act says essentially that if a majority of the employees in your workplace sign cards saying that they want to join a union, you’ll get your union, plain and simple. This would go a long way to restore the freedom of workers to choose a union, which, as Madrick suggests, has been whittled down after four generations to nearly nothing.

The Employee Free Choice Act sounds fair because it is. But corporations that want to keep their employees from a better standard of living are determined to kill it. For instance, Crain’s Chicago Business reported on December 8 that McDonald’s Corporation is busy mobilizing its 2,400 franchisees to oppose the legislation. And that’s just McDonald’s.

Why is the freedom to organize into unions such a high-stakes battle? Because for millions of Americans who work hard and live from paycheck to paycheck, the union is the path to the middle class. Full-time workers in unions bring home 30 percent higher wages than similar workers without a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That doesn’t even count the huge advantages that union workers have in their health insurance coverage and pensions.

Employers will fight tooth and nail to keep their employees from having that kind of bargaining power. In fact, they already do. Employers routinely harass, intimidate, and even fire union supporters, and the current labor law is helpless to stop them. Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University found that 90 percent of private-sector employers fight their workers’ efforts to form a union, and a quarter even illegally fire union supporters. Meanwhile, as Madrick puts it, “the federal government is required by law to protect union organizers but it consistently fails to do so.”

The battle over the Employee Free Choice Act has started and employers are already fine-tuning their rhetoric. They’re claiming that the majority sign-up in this legislation is somehow less democratic than the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election set-up we have now.

But pay close attention. They’ll never say a word about the many ways that corporations poison the NLRB elections every day and destroy any real choice for workers who want their unions.

On Election Day, America’s working families voted for good jobs, health care for all, and the chance for working people to keep a fair share of the wealth we help create—a vision very much like the one Madrick describes in his New York Review article and his splendid new book The Case for Big Government.

They also voted overwhelmingly for candidates for the White House and Congress who endorsed the Employee Free Choice Act. But with this, as with a host of other issues, the business interests and their right-wing allies will use every loophole and hire every lobbyist they can to keep their power.

They voted for their dream of a better America, but winning the election was the easy part. What’s next is making their dream come true.

John Sweeney
President, AFL-CIO
Washington, D.C.

Jeff Madrick replies:

I agree with John Sweeney that passage of the Employee Free Choice Act would be a critically important step toward leveling the playing field for labor unions. Abuses of labor laws are now widespread and almost unrestrained by Washington. Passage will be a major political test for the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress in a battle against business resistance.

But we should also keep in mind that a victory will only be a start, though an important one, in reversing one of the economy’s most critical failures. Wages have stagnated or grown slowly for a generation in America for a variety of reasons. Americans have kept up only by borrowing in record amounts and by working more hours.

Wages have to rise strongly in the nation again as the proper reward for work well done and to provide needed demand for goods and services without unsustainable levels of debt. Raising minimum wages, domestic investment in infrastructure, energy, and other areas, and improved and more equally financed early and K–12 education require immediate attention. Some of these needs are at last being addressed in the new Obama stimulus plan.

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