The Common Good
July 2007

Justice at Work

by Kim Bobo | July 2007

Religious leaders are backing the Employee Free Choice Act.

What do you think would happen if you tried to organize a union in your workplace? If you are like most Americans, you suspect that you would be fired, harassed, or penalized in some fashion for wanting a union. You're probably right.

Anti-union bullying or attacks occur in more than 80 percent of the workplaces in which workers seek to organize a union. If workers arrange to vote for a union, employers threaten to close plants, fire the union leaders (which obviously chills organizing efforts), harangue workers on paid time about how bad unions are, and occasionally beg workers to give them another chance. By the time workers finally get around to a vote, usually after months of anti-union barrages, many decide it's not worth trying to get a union.

In response to this routine bullying in the workplace, union leaders have proposed a set of simple improvements outlined in the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill passed the House March 1 and has been introduced in the Senate. Supporters believe it could win a majority vote in the Senate, but President Bush would likely veto it.

Nonetheless, as the first significant piece of labor law reform to come close to passing in decades, the Employee Free Choice Act is a bellwether for national changes likely in labor-management relations. The growing engagement of the religious community in supporting the Employee Free Choice Act reflects its recent experience in supporting janitors in Indianapolis, hotel workers in San Francisco, laundry workers in Chicago, security guards in Boston, and nursing home workers in the Twin Cities whose efforts to organize a union and get a contract were consistently thwarted by employers.

THE ACT CALLS for three things:
1) Card check. The first, and most controversial, proposal, known as card check, works like this: If more than half the workers signed cards saying that they wanted to be represented by a union, the employer would be required to negotiate with that union. This would cut out the months of anti-union bullying that often occurs in the workplace between when workers begin to organize and they actually get scheduled for a formal election.

Anti-union business groups, in collaboration with Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, claim this process would undermine workers' right to voter privacy. This argument might have fooled people a few years ago, but not today. Workers know the harassment that occurs in the workplace when they try to organize, and so do religious leaders who have stood with workers in the last decade advocating better wages, benefits, and working conditions. For example, when janitors at the University of Miami wanted card check recognition, South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice religious leaders stood with workers as they got arrested over this issue.

2) Increased fines. Right now, the penalties for breaking the law by firing a worker for trying to organize are insignificant. Many employers routinely break the law, knowing full well that it is cheaper to pay small fines than to negotiate with workers over how to offer family wages and family health care benefits. The proposal would increase fines and penalties so they are a real deterrent to law-breaking anti-union behavior.

3) Binding arbitration. This final provision would help workers who have chosen to be represented by a union but are having trouble reaching a first contract. The threat of binding arbitration, which probably sounds risky to both unions and employers, should encourage both sides to reach an agreement in a timely fashion.

These three simple reforms are reasonable and modest proposals aimed at curbing employer interference in workers' rights to organize. All major religious traditions support workers' rights to organize, and thousands of clergy and religious leaders can talk articulately about why the current practices are not working.

Workers want a fairer and safer way to be able to decide on union representation. Why? Because they care about their families. They want wages that can lift them out of poverty and health care benefits that cover their kids. They want a say in how work is organized. They want to make sure that workplace safety is as important as workplace profits. The Employee Free Choice Act may not solve all of our nation's labor problems, but it is a good first step.

Kim Bobo is the executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, a national network of faith-based organizations that seeks improved wages, benefits, and working conditions for workers in low-wage jobs.

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