Organize! Army of union stewards deploys for Employee Free Choice Act

WASHINGTON — “Union power’s on the rise, now’s the time to organize!”

More than 1,000 union members took up that chant as they marched to Capitol Hill, Dec. 8, still riding high from labor’s huge victory in the Nov. 7 midterm elections. They were marching to demand that the new Democratic-majority Congress act on labor’s legislative agenda, including an increase in the minimum wage to $7.50 an hour and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

The march and rally on Human Rights Day was the high point of the AFL-CIO Organizing Summit Dec. 8-9 at a nearby hotel, marked by calls for launching the most massive organizing drive since the 1940s led by a half-million-strong “stewards army” and increased support from labor for the struggles of its community allies.

The Employee Free Choice Act would change the nation’s labor law to recognize a union when the majority of workers sign authorization cards. The current process allows employers to insist on a two-stage process that includes both card signing and voting supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

It’s employer abuse of this drawn out process that accounts for the fact that every 23 minutes an employer fires or discriminates against a worker in the U.S. for his or her union activity, Mary Beth Maxwell of American Rights at Work told the summit. By streamlining the process, increasing employer penalties and facilitating bargaining for a first contract, the EFCA is expected to clear the way for millions of the 60 percent of American workers who say they want a union to achieve their goal.

Fred Mason, president of the Maryland-D.C. AFL-CIO, told the World, “We ran a marathon in the midterm elections and we won. Now it’s time to turn it into a sprint, to win passage of this legislation workers need to exercise their right to organize.”

Stewart Acuff, director of the AFL-CIO Organizing Department, said the Nov. 7 election “is the biggest and most significant electoral victory” in a generation. “We have broken the stranglehold of the radical, right-wing Republicans,” he told the World. “We immediately go from defense to offense. We are ramping up the effort to pass the Employee Free Choice Act to make it harder for employers to intimidate and retaliate against workers who want to form a union.”

The other goal of the “summit” he said, was to “share the best practices and skills development that are needed to run huge non-NLRB organizing drives.”

Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen told of signing up 17,000 Verizon Wireless workers, bringing to 38,000 the number of Verizon employees protected by a CWA contract. “There’s a direct link between the destruction of collective bargaining rights in this country and declining health care and retirement benefits as well as the stagnation of wages,” he told the rally.

Maude Hurd, president of Associated Community Organizations for Reform Now, told the crowd, “ACORN members are low- and moderate-income workers and their families. We see with our own eyes how their lives improve when they are members of unions. When labor is weakened, we all are weakened and when labor is strong we all are strong.”

Jennifer Pae, president of the United States Student Association, said skyrocketing tuition has forced most college students to work at minimum-wage, nonunion jobs. “The right to form a union is a basic human right,” she said. “We too worked to turn out the vote Nov. 7. We will continue to fight for legislation that will help, not hurt, workers.”

Later, the crowd reconvened at the Hyatt-Regency Hotel. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told the meeting some in the new Congress may complain that labor is demanding “too much too soon. … Our answer is: we didn’t elect you to hesitate. We elected you to liberate.”

Acuff chaired a plenary session in which leaders of the CWA, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee told of their success in organizing hundreds of thousands of workers into unions.

“We must launch an organizing drive like we have not seen in this country in decades,” Acuff said. It will require “a change in our internal union culture, to open up our organizations and bring people in. … We have to run much, much larger campaigns, engage thousands and tens of thousands of workers” and at the same time reach out to allies with the message, “If you’ll make our fight your fight, we’ll make your fight our fight.”

AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, in a statement read by his assistant, Paul Booth, said that life has proven that the AFL-CIO was “right about putting our efforts into the midterm elections. And now many doors are open to us.” McEntee invited the Change to Win unions to return to the fold. “The door is open,” he said, promising their return will be welcome and celebrated.

greenerpastures21212 @ yahoo.com

Roberta Wood contributed to this story.