NY Daily News: Why middle-class families need the Employee Free Choice Act

Here's a piece that was in today's local, the New York Daily News:
Errol Louis Stronger unions, better jobs: Why middle-class families need the Employee Free Choice Act

The all-out campaign by Republicans in Congress to kill the Employee Free Choice Act will be the next big political showdown between President Obama and the GOP - and by far the most important.

Thanks to the lobbying efforts of anti-union forces - led by the Republican National Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is spending $30 million to zap EFCA - the debate over the bill has been distorted almost beyond recognition.

Countless radio, print and television ads harp on a false accusation that the proposed law would abolish the use of secret ballots during union certification elections.

That is not true. EFCA would allow workers to choose a traditional, government-supervised election with secret ballots, or a simpler checkoff on a form.

As reporter Melanie Trottman noted in a Wall Street Journal news story on Feb. 4, "the bill does not eliminate a union's ability to seek a secret-ballot election, but opponents say it's hard to imagine the circumstances in which a union would prefer an election to a faster and more discreet card check." [emphasis added]

The secret-ballot canard, and the spurious charge that the bill will kill jobs, distracts the public - perhaps intentionally - from discussing the crucial economic issues that make pro-union legislation so badly needed.

EFCA represents America's best chance in years to reverse stagnation in the wages, wealth and work conditions of our middle class.

Adjusted for inflation, real wages for U.S. employees have remained flat since the 1980s, except for a spurt in the 1990s at the height of the high-tech bubble. Health and retirement benefits declined at the same time, as countless employers shifted from pension plans to cheaper, more volatile 401(k) retirement accounts.

While salaries and benefits were stalling or fading, living expenses including food, fuel, health care and education soared, creating a middle-class squeeze that contributed mightily to the current recession and banking crisis.

"If the banks are in trouble, it's because the household sector is in trouble," says economist William Spriggs of the Economic Policy Institute. "We're looking at the problem upside-down."

Spriggs and dozens of other economists, including three Nobel Prize winners, recently published an open letter endorsing EFCA as a way to boost the earning and spending power of middle-class families.

Noting that surveys indicate that half of all nonmanagement employees would like to join a union - but only 7.5% of nongovernment employees belong to one - the economists conclude that EFCA "is not a panacea, but it would restore some balance to our labor markets."

Right now, employers determined to block workers from unionizing can stall, pressure, fire and intimidate workers with near-impunity.

That's what happened in Lancaster, Calif., when employees at a warehouse run by the Rite Aid drugstore chain tried to organize. The company illegally fired and disciplined workers leading the unionization effort, resulting in a finding by federal labor officials of 49 violations of the National Labor Relations Act.

The company, without acknowledging wrongdoing, reinstated some of the workers, and a union was finally certified in March of 2008 - three years after the organizing process began.

That wasn't the end. The company continued to stall, and the two sides haven't negotiated a contract after 18 sit-down sessions.

That story, which plays out in similar form all over the country, wouldn't happen under EFCA, which requires initial company-union contracts to be handled by professional arbitrators after 120 days.

If America wants to rebuild its middle class, we have to stop hacking at people's ability to organize and fight for better working conditions.

And to do that, EFCA must be passed. It's as simple as that.

elouis@nydailynews.com

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