Dick Cheney Battles Clergy Over Employee Free Choice Act

Art Levine

While most recent media attention about Dick Cheney has focused on his pro-torture comments, it's worth noting that his remarks Tuesday attacking the Employee Free Choice Act also aired on the same day as a new coalition of religious leaders, Faith Leaders for Workplace Fairness, pressed the case for the pro-worker legislation. (The next day, the pro-union momentum continued with a new ad aimed at pressuring flip-flopping Senator Arlen Specter to back the Employee Free Choice Act, another sign that the campaign for the bill is far from over.) Even as the AFL-CIO's spokesperson, Eddie Vale ironically "welcomed" Cheney as a front man for the anti-union cause -- "If Cheney wants to emerge and be the lead spokesman against the Employee Free Choice Act, I'll help book his interviews," he said -- such religious leaders as the Rev. Jim Wallis outlined the moral case for workplace fairness. As their press release noted: "Faith Leaders for Workplace Fairness" says labor law reform, restoring balance to economy, is "a moral imperative" Washington, DC-- Prominent interfaith leaders today called on Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, calling it a "moral imperative" and a civil and human right. The diverse group included Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Dr. Joseph Fahey of Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice, Bishop Greg Rickel of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, and Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, former Executive Director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. Leaders of the new group, called Faith Leaders for Workplace Fairness, spoke on a conference call for press moderated by Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice. "We need to pass the Employee Free Choice Act because at the heart of this debate is the moral issue of fairness in the need to level the playing field between employee and employer," said Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners. "The great chasm that's grown between CEO salaries and that of average workers should deeply concern not just union members, but every Member of Congress, every CEO, and everyone who cares about the future of our economy." Religious leaders can be very influential in promoting local organizing drives against stubborn corporations, and the hope among union activists is that they can help play such a role at the national level, adding a moral claim to the push for creating a level playing field for workers. When I attended undercover a unionbusting seminar by the law firm Jackson Lewis for In These Times, the attorney for the firm recounted the outsized influence of the clergy in an SEIU battle to organize janitors in Houston (although his comments weren't in the final published article). He reported in horrified tones: "The Justice for Janitors talked about raising the average wage. They went to the archbishop, the local politicians. The archbishop even held a mass for the Justice for Janitors. How can anybody fight that? I'm good at fighting Jimmy Hoffa, but a bishop? We have to deal with the pope's encyclical [Pope John Paul II's "On Human Work."] and people's faith." The appearance of the clergy in an organizing drive appears to have the same impact on a unionbuster as waving a golden cross in the face of Dracula. Indeed, the Dark Lord, Dick Cheney, apparently already fearful that he could face investigation and prosecution here or overseas for torture, might be as alarmed as any vampire in a 1930s horror movie by the determined mission of the Faith Leaders for Workplace Fairness: In times of economic hardship, it is essential to put the needs of workers and families at the forefront of plans to repair and stimulate the economy. As people of faith, we must stand with workers in their struggles and ensure that they are protected and can provide for themselves and their families. That's why we, as faith leaders, support the Employee Free Choice Act, which will give workers a free and fair chance to join unions without fear of intimidation. It's a commonsense way to support working families and restore fairness to the workplace and our society. One of the most effective means to ensure workers' protection is for them to join a union. Union representation is a vehicle to reduce poverty for workers in low-wage jobs, provide health care and pension benefits for families, improve health and safety in the workplace, advocate economic and social policies that support all workers, and provide workers a role in workplace decisions. Religious leaders are particularly important to demonstrate that this is an issue of fundamental justice and respect of the dignity of each human being. With the current economic crisis, we must remember that we need to create good jobs, not just any jobs - jobs that provide living wages, decent working conditions and allow everyone to have a voice and dignity at work. Unions have been vital to bringing workers into the middle class and raising standards even for those in the lowest wage sectors of our economy. Furthermore, our religious traditions affirm the right of workers to freely organize themselves. Our traditions address the need for freedom in the workplace, basic human dignity, and a voice at work. What is especially compelling in the arguments of the religious leaders is their emphasis on a sin that's especially prevalent in corporate America, whether it involves union organizing or their fraudulent balance sheets: bearing false witness. Kim Bobo, author of Wage Theft and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, zeroed in on this issue in her recent column for Religion Dispatches: The commandment that didn't mean anything to me until recently was "Thou shalt not bear false witness." I suspect that those working with young men of color falsely accused of crimes they did not commit understand the significance of this commandment. I've come to appreciate its importance when I hear of workers fired on trumped-up charges for trying to organize a union in their workplace. Labor law in the United States is clear that workers cannot be fired for trying to organize a union. So, employers claim they are firing workers for being late, or poor performance, or other issues that were never problems until the workers began organizing. Thousands of employers bear false witness against workers each and every year. According to American Rights at Work, more than 86,000 workers filed claims with the National Labor Relations Board between 1996 and 2007 alleging that their employers fired them for trying to organize a union. Although many of the claims were never decided upon (either for or against companies) by the Board, the odds are that many of the cases had merit. And this 86,000 doesn't count all the workers illegally fired who didn't know they could file a complaint or chose not to bother, given the historic slowness of the Board's actions. How many of us could "wait" to have our jobs reinstated two years after being fired? Bearing false witness has significant consequences. Workers unjustly lose their jobs. Their families usually lose both income and health insurance. Congregations and communities lose those wage-earning productive members. Dick Cheney and his corporate allies in the anti-union smear campaign also appear to be violating the same commandment in bearing "false witness" against those who are supporting the Employee Free Choice Act by falsely claiming it would take away the secret ballot and other myths. As Media Matters pointed out in more secular terms:Dick Cheney Repeated Debunked Myths About Employee Free Choice Act On May 12, 2009, former Vice President Dick Cheney continued his media tour on Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto. During the interview, Cheney used debunked myths to back up his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act. The Employee Free Choice Act Does Not Eliminate The Secret Ballot Dick Cheney: "I do think the legislation that the administration is supporting and the unions are pushing hard, the so-called "card check" law, would do away with a secret ballot in terms of the question of organizing unions." [Cheney Interview, Your World with Neil Cavuto, 5/12/09] CSM: "The Proposed Law Gives Workers A Choice Of Forming A Union Through Majority Sign-Up ('Card Check') Or An Election By Secret Ballot." As reported in the Christian Science Monitor: "The proposed law gives workers a choice of forming a union through majority sign-up ('card check') or an election by secret ballot. The current election process, governed by the National Labor Relations Board, strongly favors employers, unions say. The bill also beefs up penalties for employers that discriminate against workers for their union-organizing activity, including treble back pay for workers found to have been illegally fired." [Christian Science Monitor, 3/11/09] PolitiFact: Employees "Could Ask for a Secret-Ballot Election." According to PolitiFact.com, "[j]ust like before, if unions got more than 30 percent of the employees to sign cards, they could ask for a secret-ballot election." Additionally, the site wrote: "As a practical matter, secret-ballot elections would be far less frequent if the Employee Free Choice Act were passed. But they would still take place under certain circumstances…" [PolitiFact.com, 3/24/09] Intimidation Comes From Businesses, Not Labor Unions Dick Cheney: "I don't think we want to get into the business where we make it easier for there to be the kind of intimidation that we've sometimes seen in these operations in the past and where people wouldn't be able to cast a secret ballot in terms of whether or not they want to join a union." [Cheney Interview, Your World with Neil Cavuto, 5/12/09] EPI: "Pro-Union Workers Can Be Forced To Attend" Anti-Union Meetings. According to the Economic Policy Institute: "Anti-union campaign managers can campaign with every worker, throughout the workplace, and around-the-clock. Pro-union employees can campaign only on break time. Management can require employees to attend 'captive audience' anti-union meetings. Pro-union workers can be forced to attend - but denied the opportunity to speak out. Management can post anti-union messages on the workplace's walls and bulletin boards. But pro-union employees cannot make use of these facilities." [Economic Policy Institute, 1/29/09] House Labor Committee: Workers Attempting To Form A Union Have "A One In Five Chance Of Getting Fired." Rep. George Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, notes: "Unlike employers, a union organizer can't fire you, cut your pay, or deny you a promotion. But, if you're an employee actively trying to organize your coworkers, you have a one in five chance of getting fired by your employer for simply exercising your democratic rights. Even a pro-business group could only find 42 cases of union deception and/or coercion in obtaining card signatures over the last 70 years. Contrast that with roughly 30,000 workers who received back pay from employers that had fired or illegally intimidated them for each year of the Bush administration. It's clear where the problem lies." [House Committee on Education and Labor, "EFCA: Fact vs. Myth," accessed 4/14/09] In the face of all the lies targeting employees in the workplace and in Washington, Kim Bobo, a leader in the fight for justice for workers, sums up this fresh moral imperative on behalf of the Employee Free Choice Act while discounting the smear campaigns against it: Employer groups led by the Chamber of Commerce are in a tizzy, claiming the sky will fall if the bill is passed. Labor groups are united in their support for EFCA, believing it is essential to level the playing field in the workplace. I'm for the Employee Free Choice Act because it would stop employers from bearing false witness. This important commandment is too often ignored, or in my case, not understood. I get it now. Bearing false witness is serious business.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
Brandon Johnson
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