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The EFCA: Truth and Fiction

In his press conference Tuesday night, Barack Obama took pains to emphasize that comprehensive solutions were needed to the economic crisis, and that working families were suffering and needed help to create real wealth.

Congress has before it a bill that would help lessen the inequality in America and support those working families by helping workers organize into unions. That bill is the Employee Free Choice Act, H.R. 1409, introduced on March 10 by George Miller of California, with a who’s who of congresspeople as cosponsors.

Economist Mark Price of the Keystone Research Center in Pennsylvania says,

“Unions make sure that as productivity rises the wealth which this increased productivity creates shows up in the paychecks of workers. Unions do this because they give workers more bargaining power and that bargaining power translates into higher wages.”

Price also notes that a stronger labor movement is key in creating a sustainable economy once the crisis is stabilized. “Like the need for increased financial regulation, a stronger union movement is critical to making sure that when the economy does recover that recovery produces widely shared gains.”

EFCA, as it is known, is shaping up to be the biggest battle over organized labor since 1947, and big business is pouring millions into advertising and lobbying against the bill—including Citigroup and other bailed-out businesses. The irony of using taxpayer dollars from working people to defeat a bill that aims to help working people is not lost on EFCA supporters.

What would the bill actually do? Well, the biggest part of it—and the biggest misconception—is over something called card check. This would allow workers to form a union simply by signing a card that authorize union representation. Current legislation protecting workers’ right to organize requires secret ballot voting, which would still be an option under EFCA—it would be up to the workers to choose how they wanted to organize. Hence the word “choice,” and also lots of misleading ads and Wall Street Journal editorials claiming that the bill would do away with secret ballot elections.

The most important part of EFCA, actually, is its strengthening of penalties against employers who threaten workers with the loss of their jobs or other penalties if they form a union. According to the AFL-CIO, “Employees are fired in one-quarter of private-sector union organizing campaigns, and 78 percent of companies require supervisors to deliver anti-union messages to the workers whose jobs and pay they control.”

The union movement in the U.S. has been shrinking since the 1970s. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 12.4% of American workers are unionized. By contrast, in 1983, 20.1% were union members. Worse yet, in the private sector, only 7.6% of workers are unionized. The Bureau goes on to note that workers represented by a union had median weekly earnings of $886, while non-union workers took home a median of $691.

Most pro-union legislation has happened in times of economic crisis. It seems as though it takes hardship for Americans to remember that we’re all in this together. Price, in a Philadelphia Daily News op-ed, wrote:

“Perhaps the most important step, one that helped millions realize the American Dream, was a 1935 law strengthening workers’ rights to join labor unions. American courts began to display a willingness to support these new rights.

And Congress took action to encourage middle-class consumption by passing the minimum wage law, Social Security and unemployment insurance.

Millions of Americans joined unions, giving them unprecedented bargaining power, which led to steady wage increases and fueled an explosion of productivity that supported higher incomes for all Americans, not just those at the top.”

Indeed, the decline of the union movement seems to have contributed to our current sad economic state. Fabricio Rodriguez of Jobs with Justice in Philadelphia says that, “The resources have gotten piled so heavily on the upper echelons of the economy that it finally just tipped over.”

Rodriguez continues,

“We think in order to reverse that trend, in order to create a stable base to the economy, where working people can actually accumulate wealth over time and have some security, we have to create policies that encourage strength in working people. We think the best manifestation of that are labor unions, where working people set their own agenda.”

Price notes that anger at the rich during the crisis plays a part:

“To have the voices which are opposed to increased unionization discredited by their role in the economic crisis probably helped strengthen support for unions during the Great Depression and will probably help make passage of EFCA more likely today.”

Flashbacks of a Fool ipod

He even points out that unions can benefit small businesses and help them compete with larger companies:

“Small employers have a hard time providing health care in part because as small employers they get charged higher premiums by insurance companies. Participating in a union health plan allows those employers to have premiums which are similar to those charged to big employers because the union covers multiple employers and thus the number of workers covered is similar to what you would find at a larger employer.”

Still, the anti-EFCA lobby is large and it seems to be working. Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter, formerly a sponsor of EFCA, said yesterday that he would not vote to end a filibuster on the bill.

The AFL-CIO and progressive writers immediately responded, calling Specter’s concerns about the timing of the bill what they were: cover for his real reasoning. Specter faces a tough reelection fight in 2010, facing both a Republican primary challenge and no doubt, a tough Democratic contender in a state that voted decisively for President Obama. Unions had offered him support if he would support EFCA, and Pennsylvania is one of the top 5 states in the country as far as union membership is concerned, but the fundraising would no doubt be higher from the business lobbyists pressing him to vote against it.

Rodriguez says,

“It is a huge disappointment. In 2007 Specter said that he would vote for cloture. He did not say that he supported it or opposed it. He did affirm that there are massive problems with labor law and that this fact needed to be debated. Labor law has not changed since then. The only thing that has changed is that Americans are demanding a fairer economy. The Employee Free Choice Act is a major economic reform that would do just that and now Senator Specter doesn’t even want to debate the issue?”

The fight isn’t over. Harry Reid noted that other Republicans might be open to working with the bill, and Keystone Progress is already organizing more pressure on Specter to get him to change his mind.

After all, as Rodriguez says, “Wealth is what really should define the middle class, and wealth is stability, and that’s power. We have negative wealth in this country.”

A stronger union movement would help create that stability and power for the working class, and now is not the time to give up or put off the fight.

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Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is former deputy editor of GlobalComment. She's interested in politics and pop culture, and has a special place in her heart for comics.