Legislation for the unions

By Ali Fuhrman

In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act granting workers the right to legally organize and collectively bargain with their employers. This law enabled millions of workers to join unions in auto, steel and other industries – and helped the United States emerge from the Great Depression with a growing middle class.

Now, 74 years later, thousands of other workers are again asking the government to support them in their struggle for a voice in the workplace. This time, however, they are asking the Obama administration to provide workers with a more transparent and streamlined process to form unions and negotiate first contracts.
On Wednesday, April 15, Congressman Keith Ellison, DFLer from Minnesota’s 5th District, will be on the University of Minnesota campus to discuss “Challenges facing American workers and why I support the Employee Free Choice Act.” His talk will be at noon in Room 1-108 of Hanson Hall, at the corner of 19th and Riverside Avenues on the West Bank. The event, sponsored by the University’s Labor Education Service, is being billed as “a speech and conversation with students.”

The Employee Free Choice Act would amend the National Labor Relations Act to require employers to recognize a union after a majority has signed union authorization cards. Under the current law, employers can refuse to recognize a union even if 100 percent of workers have done so. In the case of an employer refusal, employees must then petition the National Labor Relations Board for a separate election to determine whether or not employees really want to join a union.

During this sometimes long and arduous process, employers often launch anti-union campaigns in order to persuade-and in many cases coerce-employees into opposing collective representation. During these elections many choose not to vote for unions because they are afraid of losing their job. According to a recent study conducted by Kate Bronfenbrenner at Cornell University, 25 percent of companies illegally fire employees for union activity or organizing campaigns.
If unions prevail in these challenging secret elections they may then enter into negotiations with employers for a first contract. However as it now stands, the law allows management to impose working conditions unilaterally if no settlement is agreed upon.

If passed, the Employee Free Choice Act would make organizing safer for workers by imposing stricter penalties against employers that discriminate against union members or sympathizers. It would also allow employees-and employers-to request outside mediation if a first contract cannot be agreed upon through traditional negotiating procedures. Advocates say this would streamline the process and stop stonewalling by either side to prevent a fair settlement.

These are precarious times for American workers. With nearly 3.3 million people losing their jobs in the past five months alone, the specter of unemployment is forcing many to choose between livable wages and their jobs. Supporters of the Employee Free Choice Act say that as the economy recovers in the coming years, unions can be a vehicle for workers to ensure they get their fare share – much as they did in the decades following the 1930s.Ali Fuhrman ’11 can be reached at [email protected].