Before the Wagner Act of 1935 establishing the right to form unions, labor activists like my paternal grandfather could be fired for pro-union or socialist activity — as he was three times in the 1920s and 1930s in my hometown of Racine, Wis.
But the Wagner Act, in the name of “industrial democracy,” created the right of American workers to form unions via workplace elections and win recognition as the official bargaining agent.
As a result of both mass pressure (often including illegal tactics, like plant occupations) and the Wagner Act, industrial communities like Racine almost overnight became union towns. But this precious hard-won right to form unions in the United States has effectively been repealed, not by an act of Congress, but by the unilateral actions and ruthless tactics of Corporate America.
Unfortunately, labor fell short last week in fighting for the most vital part of the Employee Free Choice Act: “card-check” recognition of a union as soon as a majority of workers signed authorization cards.
Due to opposition from conservative Democrats like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and even some more populist Dems like James Webb of Virginia, card-check was jettisoned in order to continue the fight for two other important components of the legislation.
One provision would shorten the election process to five or 10 days (as yet unsettled) after 30 percent of workers sign authorization cards. Such a compressed time period would prevent prolonged, full-scale onslaughts of threats and intimidation by management.
Second, once a union is recognized, an arbitrator would step in to set the terms of a first contract if management dragged its feet with the aim of de-certifying the union.
In present-day America, where the richest 1 percent earn 22 percent of all income, re-instituting the right to organize via EFCA is crucial. But aided by expensive consultants, management has been taught how to exploit their advantage of exclusive access to workers in the workplace.
Corporate managers have learned how to delay elections for months, giving them more time to employ intimidating tactics like “captive audience meetings” during work hours, threats of plant relocation and even the outright firing of pro-union workers.
The practice of firing union sympathizers was so widespread — because the penalties are so miniscule — that 31,358 pro-union workers were fired in 2005, according to Phillip Dine, author of State of the Unions.
Polls show that 52 percent of U.S. workers say that they would join unions if they had the chance. So what led to the rejection of the critical card-check provision of EFCA?
My preliminary take: first, we again saw labor’s customary reluctance to really bring “street heat” to bear against conservative Democrats, or to get President Obama to twist arms in the Senate.
Trying to win goodwill among the Democrats in order to win EFCA, the union movement (excepting the UAW and Steelworkers) largely sat on its hands when the Obama’s Automotive Task Force ruthlessly downsized GM and Chrysler’s workforces and even increased outsourcing to Mexico and the Far East.
Second, labor’s EFCA message, delivered in TV ads, was muddled and unclear. Instead of providing testimonials about the totalitarian hell that employers impose against organizing drives, America saw labor-sponsored ads that entirely avoided the fight over democracy in the workplace in favor of the vague theme of sharing prosperity.
Meanwhile, management ran very pointed — and supremely hypocritical — TV spots that stressed protecting workers’ right to a secret ballot from union thugs (some of which actually featured a menacing actor from “The Sopranos” gangster TV show).
My quick judgment thus far on EFCA: If labor won’t embarrass Democrats unwilling to stand up for the basic democratic right to organize by drawing on its one source of power — member mobilization — it risks embarrassing itself.
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