Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Big Picture: The Employee Free Choice Act Part II: The Formidable Opposition

Despite its urgent necessity, the Employee Free Choice Act faces up an uphill battle because centrists and many liberals - especially those in the media and other provinces of the elite that are far removed from unions - view the act and indeed labor unions themselves with suspicion and distaste. We will take on these objections, from the most specific to the most general.

By far the most commonly cited reason for opposing the Employee Free Choice Act is that it "takes away the secret ballot from workers." This sounds very bad and un-American. But let's examine this argument, and place it in context. First, who designed the argument? Reporters have shown that business groups and conservatives - forces that are extremely hostile to labor organizing - have formed an extraordinarily tight alliance in opposition to EFCA since it was first proposed years ago, and their highly-paid consultants decided that the "secret ballot" argument would be by far the most effective way to frame the bill in order to tear it down. Media outlets, commentators, revered businessmen like Warren Buffett, and even old liberals like George McGovern have all lapped up the corporate spin and proclaimed their staunch opposition to this bill on these grounds, but it is important to remember that this framing of the bill was not the product of an objective analysis of its contents, but of the highly ideological framing of corporations and conservatives.

It also may seem odd that corporations like Wal-Mart who zealously restrict workers' free expression, who adamantly declare that the Bill of Rights does not apply to private corporations, are suddenly looking out for workers' right to a secret ballot. It seems odder still that, as the anti-EFCA commercials scream, Big Labor is resorting to dictatorially forcing workers to join a union, given every poll shows that the majority of workers would choose to join a union if they could. Even though corporations claim they only want to protect a worker's right to a free and fair election, investigative reports and confessions from former union-busters prove that corporations do all manner of illegal activities (which as we said before are next to impossible to prove and which result in slaps on the wrist even if somehow proven) to intentionally prevent a free and fair election, because most workers in a free and fair election would choose to join a union. The public is shockingly unaware of these seemingly 19th-century struggles between capital and labor, but they are very real: spying, wiretapping, intimidation, lies about the consequences, and firings for implying sympathy with union organizing, closing down whole plants and stores to prevent unionization. Labor wants the ability to form a union by having 50% of the workers sign a card (card check) rather than having the company "manage" the "free and fair" elections by its own rules (or as is most often the case, never actually hold the election). Some supporters of EFCA have signaled a willingness to compromise on this, but that is a mistake, because the opponents of this bill do not care at all about workers' right to a secret ballot. In fact, a joint Chamber of Commerce-Citibank conference declared yesterday that for the entire business community "there are really no amendments you could make to this bill that would make it acceptable." This is an explicit declaration that business does not care about secret ballots, but only about preventing workers from joining a union. The "right to a secret ballot" argument is nothing more than a smokescreen, and for anyone who is taken in by that, who says they support unions but oppose EFCA, I've got a bunch of Grade AAA sub prime mortgages to sell you.

And this brings us to a bigger point: EFCA is solely and completely about whether we believe that we should have unions in this country. Some conservatives and business spokesmen have been more explicit about this goal. Their motivation is very simple: businesses believe that unionization will take away their money and power and give it to workers. It is no coincidence that the ten-fold increase in the ratio between CEO pay and shop-floor worker pay has occurred at the exact same time that unions have been decimated. Collective bargaining gives workers a much bigger share of the pie, as well as a say in the operation of a business - including how much to pay the CEO. Conservative and centrist politicians also have a bread-and-butter self-interest motivation to oppose unionization: not only are almost all their top contributors big businesses who they had better please if they want to stay in office (and if they suck up to them, they can get cushy multimillion dollar jobs after they leave office), but conservatives also know that increased unionization makes people more liberal and aggregates power to support liberal candidates. In other words, Republicans fight tooth and nail against unions (remember how in 2002 they forced the Department of Homeland Security to de-unionize its security workforce?) to protect their political position.

Still, the union movement should have a fighting chance. The majority of workers want to join a union. Unions bring up the wages of everyone in the working class, even those not in the union. And the average person has a lot more in common with a union working-man than with a CEO or conservative pundit. But there are two huge reasons the labor movement has been back on its heels for decades: for one, in our current political landscape the aggregate power of business, Republican politicians, and media pundits has been far greater than the power of organized workers. Second, educated liberals are not nearly as pro-union as they should be, and haven't fought 1/10 as hard for the rights of workers to organize as they have for the right of women to have an abortion and gays to marry. It comes down to two issues.

The first is a self-perpetuating cycle: as unions become a smaller and smaller percentage of the workforce, we think less and less about them even though they can vastly improve our lives. Especially for people who grew up after the 1980s, it is not in any way assumed that a typical job would be a union job. Unions are a rare, exotic species for only a few industries, and seem to have no relevance to the life of your average college graduate, even a liberal one. And the majority of Americans who are in the lower middle class or working class who would prefer a union in the abstract never even think about them, spurred on by the total silence toward labor in the media - not just the news, but TV and movies as well never portray unions unless they're mob-controlled. People forget that unions are responsible for such privileges we take for granted as the 8-hour day and the weekend. Few people know how much security unions provide to people like me who who are members: in a time when polls indicate the majority of Americans are very concerned about health care payments and about losing their job, my union guarantees me, who works in an entry-level position, free or very heavily reduced cost health care, as well as protection against a layoff. Even in this crisis, there have been no layoffs, and we're even getting a raise! Unions need to be put back on the radar as the default position for any employed person.

But our benefits in this time of economic crisis comes to a more serious criticism of unions among the educated class: they are inefficient, backward, ill-suited to our current economy, and will drag our standard of living down. But the historical and comparative evidence is pretty glaring in showing the exact opposite is true. As I wrote on Tuesday, America's most prosperous years directly coincided with the period of highest unionization. In the era before mass unionization, our economy hurtled into the Great Depression, and in the 35 years of union decline, the standard of living for the bottom 90% has declined even as social inequality and social instability and insecurity have skyrocketed. And as the great columnist Harold Meyerson wrote today, the German economy - where unions have much more power - is in far better shape than ours because union power kept the economy focused on making things, producing value, rather than inventing wealth through financial schemes and devious tricks as we did here where the rich have so much more power over the direction of the economy. This makes fundamental sense: when workers aggregate their power, they force the nation's economics to be geared toward their own interests, the interest of the working and middle classes. As Father Strike pointed out, unions force more of the nation's wealth to be in the hands of the working and middle classes who spend it and power the economy, which is much more efficient than having the very rich hoard it. Over the past 30 years, in the absence of countervailing worker power, our "trickle-down" economics has been driven by what's good for the extremely wealthy, and we are living with the results. The money we could have to spend and invest to get the economy going again has been looted by the very rich. A powerful labor movement would prevent such reverse-Robin-Hood policies. I think unions are more likely to pursue the best interests of the nation, but I will admit there will be plenty of times where the interests of union members runs counter to the interests of the nation as a whole. Seniority and tenure rules might be such an example. But many educated people, spurred on by the anti-union forces, blow these somewhat inefficient policies way out of proportion. Union rules are not perfect and can and should be tweaked, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Our democratic system has far more inefficiencies and curious policies than organized labor, but no one's calling for throwing it out in favor of a monarchy. Once workers have the seat at the table they deserve, than it's perfectly reasonable that they might not get everything they want. That's why we live in a pluralistic democracy. But the only way a pluralistic democracy - and a economy of broadly shared prosperity - works is to give the major players - workers AND business - equal seats at the table. Restoring union power is critical to the functioning of our democracy and more urgently now, our economy, and the Employee Free Choice Act is the non-negotiable first step.

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