First, I want to thank everyone who welcomed me in the Firedoglake family last week as I assume the spot so ably and passionately filled by Jordan Barab. It will be tough to match Jordan’s wit or his knowledge of the union movement, but I’m thrilled to join FDL’s great community. Christy, Pach, emptywheel, TRex, and most of all, Jane really have made this a great gathering place for so many informed and interested people who in turn have created a true progressive forum.
Now, on to really great news. Last week, I described how difficult it is for U.S. workers to form unions under our current labor laws, which are badly outdated and so full of holes that some employers get away with illegal actions like firing workers who express an interest in joining unions.
Some 60 million workers say they would join a union if they could—but our labor laws, dating back to the 1930s, are skewed in favor of corporate giants who spend big bucks to harass and intimidate workers. And it works—after all, how many people want to lose their jobs? (Although, as I noted, it’s illegal to fire workers for forming unions, management does it anyway, counting on the fact that it often takes years for a worker’s appeal to wind its way through the regional and national labor boards and even the courts.)
A few years ago, we in the union movement began pushing for a bill called the Employee Free Choice Act that would level the playing field for workers and help rebuild America’s middle class and restore the freedom of workers to choose a union. (Get the details of the act here.)
Even in the unpleasant 109th Congress, we got 215 co-sponsors in the House and 44 in the Senate. But with a new, worker-friendly Congress, we now have 231 House co-sponsors—and the bill, H.R. 800, was introduced Monday night!
I’m not a big fan of using exclamation points. But after years of working for this bill, its introduction in the House with a Democratic majority is such a major deal for America’s workers that it’s impossible not to be thrilled! The last time legislation to change U.S. labor laws was introduced was in the late 1970s, and it didn’t get very far.
What a difference an election makes. (And what a difference everyone in the netroots and union movement made this past election.) A few years ago, some expressed doubt that our efforts to change the nation’s labor laws could ever happen. But Nov. 7 showed the need to combine a robust program to organize workers with equally strong political action. From Dennis Hastert, who never in his life would co-sponsor the act, we now have a House led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who made introduction of the Employee Free Choice Act one of Congress’s first priorities after the first 100 hours of legislation. Says Pelosi:
The right to form unions, the right to quality health care, the right to bargain collectively, and the right to safe workplaces are non-negotiable. Too often American workers face harassment, intimidation, and coercion when they try to exercise the right to join a union. The Employee Free Choice Act preserves this fundamental freedom, benefiting all American workers and their families.
Among those Americans are a growing number of professionals who find their middle-class life threatened by economic forces that, without a union voice at work, they can’t control. In fact, “many young, white-collar workers are now as bewildered by the ‘new economy’ as manufacturing workers have been for a generation,” according to Jim Grossfeld and Celinda Lake. Writing on The America Prospect online, they offered their perspectives on a recent Center for American Progress study, White Collar Perspectives on Workplace Issues.
As a 20-something techie in the once bustling Silicon Valley told us: “I think a lot of people, you know, 30 years ago, could get a job that was relatively stable, but, here I am, five years out of school, and I've had four jobs. It's not because I'm not good because I've gotten praise from every single job I've been at. It's just that the fact that the companies don't seem stable.”
But it's not just that these workers' future career prospects look murkier. The quality of their work lives is tanking, too. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this decline. Technical and professional employees share a profound conviction that their work ought to be intellectually satisfying—even an expression of their values. However, when employers press for cost savings and workloads soar, psychic wages take a plunge. Echoing the sentiments of many of the workers we spoke to, when asked to describe her office, one San Jose woman answered: “Busy, overworked, under staffed, not enough people in the group to do all the work we need to do so everyone's doing a lot of work and just running around like a chicken with a head cut off.”
AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff puts it this way:
[There is a] direct correlation between 25 years of stagnant, flat-lined wages and the assault on unions. Forty-seven million of us are without health care and 40 million with inadequate health care, [and] 20 percent more of us [live] in poverty now than when this decade started.
By leveling the playing field for workers seeking to form unions, the Employee Free Choice Act will improve the wages, working conditions and job security for workers who want to sign on. By ensuring that workers who want to join unions don’t experience employer harassment, the Employee Free Choice Act can replicate the experience of workers like Asela Espiritu, a registered nurse at Kaiser Permanente who didn’t have to endure harassment and intimidation to win a voice on the job through her union.
Espiritu works at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center-Orange County in Anaheim, Calif., which was the only hospital—out of Kaiser’s 13 hospitals in Southern California—in which the workers didn’t have a union.
She and her co-workers formed a union in 2000 with United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals-AFSCME at Kaiser under their company’s national neutrality and majority sign-up agreement. Requiring employers to follow a code of conduct in union campaigns and allowing more workers to use the majority sign-up process are both part of the Employee Free Choice Act.
The employees formed a union quickly—three months after they had started their organizing effort. Under the current National Labor Relations Board process, it can literally take years for workers who want to join a union to do so. Says Espiritu:
The 2000 negotiations gave us a lot of power and the voice to speak up on behalf of our patients. It’s not perfect, but we are on the road to solving the issues that affect the rank and file day in and day out. We have stability, and we have become a very desirable workplace.
Everyone wants to work here now. Nurses say, ‘I want to be a nurse at Kaiser.’ Our vacancy rate is at an all-time low. We are the highest-paid nurses in the county. It’s not just about the benefits either; it’s about the nurse-to-patient ratio we were able to get through Kaiser and the union working together.
We stand a good chance to get the Employee Free Choice Act passed in the House. The harder part will come in the Senate. But we’re making progress getting co-sponsors there as well, and when we get a firm list, you’ll see it here.