Employee Free Choice Act is key to recovery

As 2008 comes to an end the labor movement has much to celebrate including the election of our first African American president, the win for union representation for the Smithfield slaughterhouse workers in Tar Heel, N.C., and the settlement won by Chicago union workers who led a six-day sit-in at their factory.

Responding to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, many are demanding a people’s bailout that puts Main Street working families before Wall Street.

Millions voted for change and working people are coming together and saying, “Enough!” In their unity the message is: an injury to one is an injury to all. At rallies nationwide they shout, “Yes we can” and “Yes we did.”

“We have achieved victory,” said Armando Robles on Dec.10. He’s president of Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America which led 250 Chicago workers in a six-day occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory.

Their sit-in began after Republic, in violation of the law, gave only three days’ notice that the factory would close. Republic said its main creditor, Bank of America, had cut off financing. Bank of America had recently received a $25 billion bailout package from the federal government but apparently decided it wouldn’t use that money to keep manufacturing enterprises going.

But as the sit-in drew national and even international attention, Republic’s management, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase agreed on a $1.75 million settlement with the workers and their union. Each worker is expected to receive eight weeks’ salary, all accrued vacation pay and two months’ paid health care.

Support for the workers came in droves. Fellow workers, both union and non-union, community groups, religious organizations, small businesses, immigrant rights groups, Chicago’s City Council, state leaders and President-elect Barack Obama were among the many who backed their struggle.

“We the workers are an example for all working men and women who have come together and united for our basic rights,” Republic worker Felipe Pillado told the World.

Another worker, Fanor

Benabidez, said he and his co-workers were very happy with the support they received. “And we’re especially happy that we have Obama’s support because it gives us courage that we are going to win,” he said.

Meanwhile, after a 15-year struggle, workers at Smithfield Packing slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C., the world’s largest hog processing plant, voted to unionize with the United Food and Commercial Workers. The vote, 52 percent to 48 percent for the union, was the largest private-sector union victory in recent history and followed the biggest drive ever by the UFCW.

“It feels great,” said Smithfield worker Wanda Blue in a press interview. “It’s like how Obama felt when he won. We made history.”

Many feel the political climate surrounding the election of Obama spurred the union victory.

“The election of Barack Obama may have eased people’s concerns about speaking out and standing up for a union,” Cornell University labor studies professor Richard Hurd told The New York Times.

Another Smithfield worker, Lydia Victoria said, “People came together and wanted fair treatment. We fought so long to get this, and it finally happened.”

Speakers at a Chicago rally for the Republic workers in front of Bank of America offices connected the workers’struggle to other pressing issues such as creating green jobs, a moratorium on evictions linked to foreclosures, the right to health care and housing, retirement security and same-sex marriage rights.

“Workers are sticking together and fighting back and we don’t have to take it anymore,” said Fran Tobin of Jobs with Justice. “We need a people’s bailout, not a Wall Street bailout.”

Many single out passage of the Employee Free Choice Act as a critical part of labor’s fight for economic justice. The bill aims to eliminate barriers to workers seeking union representation and is key to any meaningful economic recovery, speakers at a Dec. 16 community-labor forum in Cleveland pointed out.

But just as with the bailout, powerful forces are working to block the bill and prevent any gain for workers and communities.

The Cleveland forum was organized to respond to the local branch of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, which is going all out to defeat employee free choice.

The chamber, spearheading a national campaign against the bill, has raised over $200 million for the battle, which it calls “Armageddon.”

Those opposed to employee free choice are “extremely short-sighted,” said Michael Ettlinger of the Center for American Progress.

“The economy for working people has been in decline since 2000, with growing poverty and unemployment and declining average incomes,” he said.

“The recession was papered over by artificially raised housing values, but now, with that bubble burst, the economy is in general decline and expected to get worse. Credit, even for routine business operations, has dried up and unless companies regain confidence they can sell their goods and services, the entire economy could collapse.”

Ettlinger praised the programs advocated by President-elect Obama to increase mass purchasing power and create jobs. He noted, however, that “the Employee Free Choice Act in this situation is especially important. We not only need jobs, we need good jobs so that people can buy more than just food and shelter.

“This is not just about unions and workers; this bill would improve the general well-being,” Ettlinger said. “It is about raising American living standards.”

John Ryan, an aide to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), said higher wages paid to union workers would add to the economy. He noted that unions have a far-reaching effect because, in more heavily unionized areas, non-union companies feel pressure to raise wages to meet union standards.

“Collective bargaining is the key to U.S. prosperity,” Ryan declared.

Given the well-funded and organized opposition, it will take a big effort to enact the Employee Free Choice Act, but with Obama and majorities in both houses of Congress, including some Republicans backing it, it could be approved, he said.

Labor would like to see the bill become an integral part of Obama’s recovery package and is working for it to be adopted in the House in March and in the Senate in May.

The fight for what is essentially the most important bill to labor in more than 30 years parallels the biggest upsurge in labor in at least as many years. The feeling of workers during this time is perhaps best expressed by what Raul Flores, one of the Republic workers, said in Chicago: “We are workers and we deserve respect because it is us workers that are America. And we will be united and stand together no matter where we come from.”


Rick Nagin
Rick Nagin

Rick Nagin has written for People's World and its predecessors since 1970. He has been active for many years in Cleveland politics and the labor movement.