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Restoring the Freedom to Choose Unions

BACKGROUND -- There is a bumper sticker that reads, "The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend." Very catchy. But what most of us donít know is that it took 100 years for unions and working people to win the right to a 40-hour work week in contracts, and later in law for all workers.

The weekend was won because workers first won the right to organize. And even though the labor laws passed in the 1930s were weak, the economic, social and political climate were such that workers could and did organize into unions by the millions. By the early 1950s, one out of every two workers in Washington state belonged to a union.

Today, just one out of every five workers in Washington state are organized. And that is considered a high rate of union density, ranking our state 6th in the nation.

What happened? Did folks not want to be in unions anymore? Apparently not. Some 57 million American workers who currently donít belong to a union would join one tomorrow if they could, according to a 2006 survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. More than ever, people want to be part of a union.

What has changed is corporate and political behavior. Over the past couple of decades an unprecedented level of corporate excess and "race to the bottom" competitive strategies have exposed just how weak our labor laws really are. This combined with political strategies to further weaken labor laws and unions through attacks on overtime and safety-and-health regulations, privatizing and outsourcing family-wage jobs, and denying others collective bargaining rights has denied many workers their freedom of association through a union.

The National Labor Relations Board election process to determine if workers want a union is undemocratic. NLRB elections are different than any other type of election because of the inherent coercive power management holds over employees: the power to deprive a worker of their job. One-sided NLRB election rules allow employers to campaign against the union whenever and wherever they choose at the workplace including mandatory one-on-one meetings where supervisors pressure their employees to oppose unionization.

In addition, a multi-billion dollar union avoidance industry has been created, with attorneys and experts assisting businesses in defeating workers' efforts to form unions by dragging out elections or tying them up in legal proceedings so that workers become discouraged.

According to a Cornell University study, the tactics most commonly used include the following:

  • One-quarter of employers illegally fire at least one worker during an organizing campaign because they are interested in a union.

  • 75% of employers hire consultants to defeat the union.

  • 78% of employers require workers to attend one-on-one meetings with their direct supervisors to talk against the union.

  • 92% of employers require workers to attend mandatory closed-door meetings against the union.

  • 51% of employers threaten to close the operation down if the workers win a union election (only 1% actually do close down their operations).

A new 2007 study affirms that illegal firings of activists during union organizing campaigns has increased significantly and is a significant factor in the overall decline in union membership.

"Starting at the end of the 1970s, American employers began to engage in the systematic and widespread use of illegal firings as a strategy to undermine the success of campaigns for union representation," reports the non-profit Center for Economic and Policy Research.

LABORíS POSITION -- In America, we are supposed to have freedom of association and the right to bargain for a contract with our employer. But many workers, particularly in the private sector, have lost the freedom to choose for themselves whether they want to bargain for better wages and working conditions because their employers harass, intimidate and fire union supporters with relative impunity.

Major labor law reform needs to occur at the federal level. In Congress, organized labor is supporting the Employee Free Choice Act -- which has been co-sponsored by Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, plus Reps. Jay Inslee, Rick Larsen, Brian Baird, Norm Dicks, Jim McDermott and Adam Smith. But the Bush administration opposes this effort and Republicans in the U.S. Senate have threatened to filibuster the bill.

While Washington state government canít set national labor law policies, it can set parameters and community standards around itís own state expenditure and taxing policies.

In 2003, the Washington State Legislature approved an aerospace tax incentive bill that created $3.2 billion in tax incentives to the industry over a 20-year period of time. This was and still is the largest tax break ever given in the history of the United States.

While the State of Washington canít require employers to remain neutral in a union-organizing process, the state can determine what standards will determine whether a company is entitled to take advantage of particular tax incentives.

The Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO recommends that the aerospace tax incentives be available to any aerospace employer who voluntarily agrees to neither encourage nor discourage their workers from joining a union. Employer neutrality will assure workersí freedom to make their own choices regarding unionization and a voice at the workplace.

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Copyright © 2007 ó Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO