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America's Workers
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March 27, 2009

When community organizer James Thindwa came to the United States he was surprised by the skepticism in which unions were held — arguing: "Fine. Certain leaders are corrupt. But you're not suggesting that unions are not relevant in society, are you?"

The United States used to be much more like 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 Living Wage Campaign

Over the past decade and a half some groups have turned their attention away from traditional union drives toward campaigns designed to aid workers whether organized or not — most visibly through the "living wage" movement. Living wage proponents argue that the national minimum wage is is too low to cover basic necessities, and want a wage and benefits package that takes into account the area-specific cost of living and the basic expenses involved in supporting a family. In communities across country there are now more than 100 living wage statutes on the books. The debate continues over whether the laws encourage or discourage employment on the low end of the economy.

>More about living wage campaigns

Employee Free Choice Act

Some labor and economy watchers are calling the Employee Free Choice Act the crucial labor test for the Obama administration. During her confirmation hearings, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis faced tough questioning on the act and 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.
Proponents of the EFCA lost a vote in late March 2009, when Republican Senator Arlen Specter reversed himself on support for the act, citing the bad economy. This leaves the law without any Republican votes in the Senate. ("Specter pulls back support of card check law," THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, Josh Drobnyk, March 25, 2009)

Additionally, Starbucks, Costco, and Whole Foods have teamed up to push a "third way" approach to changing laws covering unions. The three big employers have formed The Committee for Level Playing Field. They say their plan is a workable compromise:

  • It would guarantee the right of management to require a secret ballot and a fixed time period for the secret-ballot election.
  • Management would be permitted to initiate a decertification campaign through a secret ballot election.
  • Unions and management would be able to access employees during non-working hours concerning the issue of whether to form a union. The group also says that the proposal would provide expedited enforcement for serious and pervasive violations of law by labor and management and stricter penalties for serious and pervasive violations, including the penalty of mandatory injunctions when appropriate.
  • Unlike the Employee Free Choice Act, the proposal wouldn't include binding arbitration.
Additional Opinion Resources

Published March 27, 2009.

Related Media:
Leo Gerard, photo by Robin HollandLeo Gerard
Bill Moyers sits down with United Steelworkers' International President Leo Gerard to discuss seeking economic justice for workers in the middle of an economic crisis and how he sees the future of American manufacturing. Gerard shares his thoughts on how unions will fare under the Obama administration, what kind of stimulus might be needed and what the future of American industry might look like. (January 9, 2009)

Katherine Newman, photo by Robin HollandMichael Zweig
Michael Zweig joins Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL to shift the focus from Wall Street to the people who will be most hurt by a protracted recession, everyday workers. (October 17, 2008)


Holly Sklar, photo by Robin HollandHolly Sklar
Holly Sklar, co-author of RAISE THE FLOOR: WAGES AND POLICIES THAT WORK FOR ALL OF US, discusses what current economic conditions say about the state of the American dream. (June 13, 2008)

Katherine Newman, photo by Robin HollandThe Downturn on the Homefront
Sociologist Katherine Newman on the global markets' effect on kitchen table issues. (January 25, 2008)


Katherine Newman, photo by Robin HollandWaging a Living
NOW examines the fight for a "living wage"—the pay needed to cover an actual week's worth of living—on the Nashville, Tennessee campus of Vanderbilt University. The chancellor there earns $1.2 million a year, the endowment is $3 billion, but some of the school's lowest-paid workers—groundskeepers, custodians, and dining service workers—earn less than $8.00 an hour. (March 30, 2007)


OBarbara Ehrenreich
Bill Moyers talks with author Barbara Ehrenreich about inequality in America. (August 3, 2007)
References and Reading:
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.

"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."

Living Wage Resources

"Living wage efforts face new hurdle: Bill targets campaigns to raise minimum pay above federal level,"
Chas Sisk, THE TENNESSEAN, March 23, 2009.

Poverty in America: Living Wage Calculator,
From the Pennsylvania State University: "Our tool is designed to provide a minimum estimate of the cost of living for low wage families. The estimates do not reflect a middle class standard of living."

NOW on PBS: A Living Wage
NOW examines the fight for a "living wage"—the pay needed to cover an actual week's worth of living—on the Nashville, Tennessee campus of Vanderbilt University.

"Businesses Divided over Impact of Higher Minimum Wage,"
ONLINE NEWSHOUR, February 2, 2007
The NEWSHOUR reports on the Senate vote to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25.

POV: WAGING A LIVING
One in four American workers — more than 30 million people work jobs that pay less than the federal poverty level for a family of four. Shot in the Northeast and California, the film profiles four very different Americans who work full-time but still can't make ends meet. Despite their hard work and determination, these four find themselves, as one of them observes, "hustling backwards."

Living Wage Resource Center
The site includes a brief history of the national living wage movement, background materials such as ordinance summaries and comparisons, drafting tips, research summaries, talking points, and links to other living wage-related sites.

University of California, Berkeley, Labor Center: Living Wage

Guest photos by Robin Holland

Published March 27, 2009.

Also This Week:

WILLIAM GREIDER
For years best-selling author William Greider sounded the alarm about Washington's unholy alliance with Wall Street and the failure of the Federal Reserve and other regulators to take preventive measures to avoid disaster. Now, he offers some suggestions to the question everyone is asking: "What do we do now?"

JAMES THINDWA
James Thindwa, whose campaign for economic fairness for working people in Chicago has brought him up against the city's powerful political establishment and corporate giant Wal-Mart.

>AMERICA'S WORKERS
The Living Wage, Employee Free Choice Act and the state of the unions.

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