Time to pass Employee Free Choice

Workers pack halls of Congress to demand passage of right-to-organize bill

“I served my nation to protect the laws of our land, not companies like Smithfield that deprive us of those laws,” meatpacking worker Keith Ludlum told a packed congressional hearing last week.

The Employees Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would stop bosses like Smithfield from denying workers the right to organize, was reintroduced in Congress Feb. 8. The bill hit the street running with 232 co-sponsors, including seven Republicans. Supporters are pushing for a March 1 vote.

Following the bill’s introduction, the House Education and Labor Committee, under its new chair George Miller (D-Calif.), held a lively three-hour hearing with both sides lobbing verbal grenades.

Miller, lead House sponsor of EFCA, told a Feb. 6 press conference that leveling the playing field to let workers choose to join unions “is a basic and fundamental human right and a basic and fundamental civil right.”

The EFCA gives workers the right to form a union when a majority signs cards. Under its rules, the union must be recognized by the employer — the boss will no longer have effective veto power as is now the case. Current law allows the employer to insist on a drawn-out election process even after the majority of workers have signed cards.

“When I was fired, the supervisors and the deputy sheriff marched me out of the plant in front of all the other employees as an example to intimidate them,” testified Ludlum, who works in the livestock department at Smithfield’s giant pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C. Ludlum was fired in 1994 just before a vote on unionization that was narrowly defeated. He wasn’t reinstated until 2000. It took that long for the National Labor Relations Board to rule against the company despite a litany of charges.

The passionate testimony of workers and union representatives about the firings, intimidation, lying and stalling tactics used by employers to undermine the choice of workers to get a union follow the spirit of the historic La Follette hearings of the 1930s, which led to the enactment of the Wagner Act. That 1935 legislation paved the way for this country’s greatest surge of unionization.

In addition, the proposed law puts far stiffer penalties into place for the illegal tactics that companies have used to create “union-free” workplaces.

Passage of the law will not bar companies from campaigning against the union, said AFL-CIO Associate General Counsel Nancy Schiffer in opening testimony at the Feb. 8 hearing. However, she said, the card check system would help to “level” the workplace floor.

Schiffer laid out the case for changes in this country’s labor law.

Behind the growing inequity in wealth in our country is the decline in the number of union members, she charged. Even though the majority of Americans believe workers should have a choice to join a union, and even though 60 million workers who are not union members say they would like to join, the campaigns of intimidation by a $4 billion “union avoidance” industry have perverted the election process.

Schiffer, a former field attorney with the NLRB, charged that anti-union consultants are hired by employers in up to 82 percent of worker campaigns to form unions. Typical employer penalties under current law are posting notices or paying back pay. Back pay is calculated by subtracting other earnings during time off.

In 1969, the number of workers who suffered illegal retaliation for exercising their federal labor law rights was just over 6,000, said Schiffer. But by 2005, the NLRB’s annual report documented 31,358 workers who received back pay because of illegal employer discrimination — one worker every 17 minutes. In 2003, the average back pay was a mere $3,800. Schiffer called that a small price for an employer pay to keep the union out.

The EFCA also mandates mediation and arbitration for the first union contract. Even where workers overcome obstacles and vote in a union, the companies typically continue union-busting tactics by refusing to bargain. According to Ronald Meisburg, general counsel for the NLRB, meritorious NLRB charges alleging illegal refusals to bargain by employers are filed in 28 percent of all newly certified bargaining relationships.

As the bill moves to the full committee, the AFL-CIO, Change to Win and individual unions including Autoworkers, Teamsters, Steelworkers and Service Employees are mounting a full-court press to block what they say corporate America is doing to pervert the rights of workers to join a union. In addition to public hearings, full page newspaper ads, blogs and e-mail campaigns are being launched to fuel the outrage necessary to pass this legislation.

Nothing free and open about NLRB elections

In testimony before the House Labor and Education Committee, AFL-CIO Associate Counsel Nancy Schiffel tore apart the often-used analogy of the company and union competing for the worker’s vote as in an election of candidates for public office.

“If general political elections were run like NLRB elections,” she said, “only the incumbent office holder, and not the challenger, would have access to a list of registered voters and their home addresses. Only the incumbent, and not the challenger, would be able to talk to voters, in person, every single day.

“The challenger, meanwhile, would have to remain outside the boundaries of the state or district involved and try to meet voters by flagging them down as they drive past. The election would always be conducted in the incumbent candidate’s party offices, with voters escorted to the polls by the incumbent’s staff.

“And finally,” she said, “during the entire course of the campaign, the incumbent, but not the challenger, would have the sole authority and ability to electioneer among the voters at their place of employment, during the entire time they are working. Moreover, the incumbent could pull them off their jobs and make them attend one-sided electioneering meetings whenever it wanted. And the incumbent could fire voters who refused to attend mandatory meetings, or if they tried to leave the meeting, or even if they questioned what was being said.”


Paul S. Kaczocha
Paul S. Kaczocha

Steelworker Paul Kaczocha is a long-time union and civil rights activist in Gary, Indiana.