The heated debate over the merits of the Employee Free Choice Act is particularly poignant for both union leaders and business interests, as it plays out during a recession that has ransacked corporate profits but sharpened the perception of high times that excluded workers in favor of shareholders and executives.
Despite being a top priority for unions, the bill seemed to have lost its life last month. But the Senate is considering compromises on the bill and may even bring it up for a vote next month.
It's crucial for workers to understand what drives the legislation's supporters and opponents.
The dwindling union ranks
Outsourcing and automation have hit the unions hard. After decades of declining membership, last year was something of a banner year for union growth. Ranks swelled by the biggest chunk in 25 years to hit 16.1 million, largely thanks to gains in government employee membership (government workers are five times as likely as other workers to be in unions).
The overall trend is pretty grim for labor.
Unions represent a smaller share of the workforce than in 1983, when data were first collected, and their ranks have dwindled in absolute numbers, as well. Indeed, while union membership was above 20 percent of the total U.S. workforce in the '80s, it is now at 12.4 percent. The EFCA would make it easier for workers to unionize, and it would allow unions to build their muscle once again. One study suggests the act would boost union rolls by 5 to 10 percent in the first year after its passage.
The threat of employer antagonism
Supporters of the EFCA argue that the conditions of the National Labor Relations Act have allowed employers to intimidate and threaten employees who attempt to unionize.
The current method of unionizing requires at least 30 percent of workers to sign cards indicating that they favor the formation of a union. The petition is sent to the National Labor Relations Board and, if certified, enables the employees to hold an election. A majority of workers then must elect to unionize.
A study released by the progressive Economic Policy Institute found that during the election process, "it is standard practice for workers to be subjected to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for union activity." The EFCA would beef up damages against companies that unlawfully fire workers for supporting union organizing.
The threat of pressure from unions
Most of the debate about the Employee Free Choice Act revolves around the fact that it would allow workers to form unions by signing cards instead of holding an election. Union elections use secret ballot voting, in which workers vote in anonymity.
Opponents argue that allowing workers to form by signing cards would open employees to greater threat of union coercion. James Sherk and Paul Kersey of the conservative Heritage Foundation argue that "card check" means workers have less free choice than under the current election system, as "a democratic election with private ballots ensures that all workers can express their desires without fear of social stigma or retribution. With a private ballot, no one else knows how any individual worker voted, and workers can express their intentions without outside pressure."
The value of government intervention
Under the terms of the EFCA, government arbitrators could script the terms of the first contract.
If union representatives and the employer cannot reach an agreement within 90 days of the start of bargaining, then either side can ask the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to help resolve the differences. If, after 30 days working with federal mediators, the two sides have not reached an agreement, government arbitrators will be brought in to render a decision.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- one of the most ardent opponents of the legislation -- argues that the arbitrators could create an agreement that neither party wants, and, "for an employer, you could be stuck with a contract that is completely incompatible with your cost structure and your business model -- and you would have to live with that contract for two years."
The value of unions
The debate over expanding the scope of unions is really significant only if unions themselves provide value to workers and yield additional power in negotiating with employers to improve the conditions for workers.
Wages are king, and the "union-wage premium," or the amount that union workers make above what nonunion workers make, is sizable, according to some research. The Center for American Progress calculates that over the four-year period from 2004 to 2007, "unionized workers' wages were on average 11.3 percent higher than nonunion workers with similar characteristics."
Union workers are also, on average, covered with better benefit packages than comparable nonunion workers. Some economists favor the legislation as the best shot at giving workers leverage at a time when companies have been slashing pay and benefits.
Court Was Right to Douse 'Disparate Impact' Fire
When race is involved no case is minor, but Ricci v. DeStefano gained blockbuster status after the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor. She was part of an appellate panel that threw out the claims of the 18 white firefighters, one of whom is Hispanic, who lost out on promotions due to the city's actions
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has declared that Yucca Mountain, the site in Nevada where the federal government has been planning to store high-level radioactive waste, is "never going to open." Reid may be right. President Obama's 2010 budget nearly zeroes out federal funding for the waste site.
Immigration Reform Now Moves to Center Stage
Nikki Schwab and Paul Bedard
It has been delayed twice and is flying in under the healthcare debate, but the president and a select group of lawmakers are finally talking about immigration reform.
Break Political Traffic Jam on Transportation Overhaul
Joshua Schank and Matthew Dallek
Any transportation project, including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, creates jobs. However, transportation has become a policy orphan amid the healthcare tsunami that's overwhelmed the news coverage of Obama's America. Thus, stalling all the economic benefits that flow from enacting a revitalized transportation policy.
Supreme Court: Strip Search of 13-Year-Old Unconstitutional
by Zach Miners
In a decision that could have significant implications for school administrators' ability to keep their campuses safe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, 8 to 1, this week that the strip search of a 13-year-old Arizona girl by school officials who were looking for prescription-strength drugs violated her constitutional rights.
Political History of the Stars & Stripes
by Andrew Burt
The history of the American flag is the story of a nation struggling to find its identity, Woden Teachout argues in her new book, Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism. Teachout, a professor of graduate studies in history and culture at the online Union Institute and University, recently spoke about the evolving meaning of the flag in American culture.
Ray LaHood: 'Transformational' Time for U.S. Transit System
Four months into his new position as secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood has a great deal on his plate. Given everything that is going on right now, is this a watershed moment for transportation?
A federal safety investigator says that the older subway train that slammed into the back of another on Washington's Metro system yesterday, killing nine people and injuring at least 70, should have been replaced years ago because of safety concerns.
Norman Borlaug: Population Growth Requires Second Green Revolution
Norman Borlaug Nobel Laureate Interview
Norman Borlaug is known as the father of the Green Revolution. His work with high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties is credited with saving as many as a billion people from starvation worldwide. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply. At age 95, a recent interview ...
The key to a good garden is good compost, and every gardener worth his salt should be making his own. Compost is a wonderful thing, plants are happy when grown in this sweet black soil amendment. Making your own is easy. Anything that once was living will eventually become compost. The trick is how fast you can harvest it.
Greening My House
Ever since I saw the Green light, thanks to my friend Laurie David, and traded in my gas-guzzling SUV, I've tried my best to up my eco-awareness.
Find your next job saving our planet as an Environmental Engineer. Search for Environmental engineering positions from thousands of job and career search sites. A search engine for jobs with a different approach to job and career searches. In one simple search, job seekers get free access to millions of employment opportunities from thousands of websites.
(c) 2009 U.S. News & World Report