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The State of Working America
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January 9, 2009

The United States used to be much more of a great big union town. As World War II came to an end, more than a third of the American workforce belonged to unions. Labor leaders wielded major clout in Democratic Party politics. They had the ear of the White House and Congress. That power plummeted as states adopted right-to-work laws, jobs moved overseas, and union-busting campaigns by corporate America became commonplace. For many, the benefits of union membership — job and wage security, workplace safety, health and pension benefits — evaporated. Today, only about 12 percent of American workers belong to unions. And many of those in unions are not in traditional manufacturing jobs, but in federal or state jobs, and even more in the service industries.

The Department of Labor's Challenge

Organized labor leaders like the United Steel Workers' Leo Gerard hope that president-elect Obama is sending a message with his nomination of Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor. Solis, herself the daughter of a union household and a strong labor advocate, has stated that should she be confirmed, the needs of American workers will be front and center under her watch.

Solis, who testified January 9, 2009, in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee as part of the confirmation process, has her work cut out for her. That same day, the Labor Department released another month's worth of dismal figures — over 500,000 jobs lost and an unemployment rate the highest in 16 years — over 2.45 million job losses for 2008. Other analysts put the number closer to 600,000

Employee Free Choice Act

With such a troubled employment outlook, it might seem surprising that economy and labor watchers are calling a bill in front of Congress about how unions are formed, the Employee Free Choice Act, the crucial labor test for the incoming administration. The issue came up in Ms. Solis' preliminary hearings on January 9, 2009, according to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:
Hilda Solis called recent U.S. job losses a "crisis," but declined to take a position on proposals to allow unions to organize without secret-ballot elections during a Senate hearing Friday on her nomination to be Labor Secretary. Ms. Solis, a California Democrat, has supported legislation to allow "card-check" organizing in the past. Unions and many Democrats have made easing union-organizing rules a top priority, but business interests are vowing to fight such legislation.

The Employee Free Choice Act would create an alternate, faster road to union recognition in the work place. In addition to the current election system, overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, the bill creates a system where if over 50 percent of workers sign a "card" to show interest in unionization the process could go forward and the employer would be required to recognize the union as a bargaining agent. "The so-called 'card check' process would be much quicker than the current election process, which can take six weeks or longer. The bill would maintain the existing right to a union vote overseen by the National Labor Relations Board if one-third of the workers ask for a federally sponsored election," Reports Diane Stafford in the KANSAS CITY STAR.

The rhetoric surrounding the debate over the Act is reminiscent of great labor battles of the past. There are charges of a greater potential for intimidation on both sides. Opponents of the bill call it nothing less than "Un-American," asserting that the protection of a secret ballot would be removed and leave those who don't support the union vulnerable to pressure. Proponents counter that it is "critical to restore worker power, rebuild the middle class and build long-lasting, sustainable and broadly shared prosperity in the economy" and cite studies which suggest that the more formal process of requesting a NLRB election allows employers to take steps to intimidate union supporters. (see Cornell University Scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner) The battle looks likely to be a tough one: THE NEW YORK TIMES reported on January 8, 2009, that groups against the measure are planning a multi-million dollar ad campaign to discredit the legislation.

Lines on the bill are not simply drawn on party lines. Read the arguments below and then tell us what you think on the blog.

My Party Should Respect Secret Union Ballots," George McGovern, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, August 8, 2008:

"I am concerned about a new development that could deny this freedom to many Americans. As a longtime friend of labor unions, I must raise my voice against pending legislation I see as a disturbing and undemocratic overreach not in the interest of either management or labor. The legislation is called the Employee Free Choice Act, and I am sad to say it runs counter to ideals that were once at the core of the labor movement. Instead of providing a voice for the unheard, EFCA risks silencing those who would speak."
THE NEW YORK TIMES stated in an OP-ED in favor of passage that:
The first and biggest test of Mr. Obama's commitment to labor, and to Ms. Solis, will be his decision on whether or not to push the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009. Corporate America is determined to derail the bill, which would make it easier than it has been for workers to form unions by requiring that employers recognize a union if a majority of employees at a workplace sign cards indicating they wish to organize...The measure is vital legislation and should not be postponed. Even modest increases in the share of the unionized labor force push wages upward, because nonunion workplaces must keep up with unionized ones that collectively bargain for increases. By giving employees a bigger say in compensation issues, unions also help to establish corporate norms, the absence of which has contributed to unjustifiable disparities between executive pay and rank-and-file pay.
Additional Opinion Resources http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123152782995168821.html

Published January 9, 2009.

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References and Reading:

Hilda Solis
Hilda Solis' site contains information on her background and positions and will post information on her Department of Labor confirmation hearings.

Bureau of Labor Statistics: Union Membership
Union membership has declined from 26.5 percent of the workforce in 1976 to 12.1 percent in 2007. Who is unionized has also changed, with the public sector overtaking private sector membership numbers. In 2007, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $863 while those who were not represented by unions had median weekly earnings of $663.

PBS Engage Blog
The PBS media literacy blog evaluates sites from Consumers Reports WebWatch, the Center for Media and Democracy and Center for Media and Democracy which track the backing of interest groups involved in media campaigns and lobbying.

"A Union Beats a Fence," Harold Meyerson, THE WASHINGTON POST, Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Meyerson and other labor journalists frequently cite the work of Cornell University scholar Kate Bronfenbrenner whose research found that "more than half of all employers made threats to close all or part of the plant during the organizing drive."

Guest photos by Robin Holland

Published January 9, 2009.

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