Labor Law Passed But GOP & President Plan To Kill
Between The Lines
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release March 12, 2007
House Passes Labor Law Reform, but GOP and President Bush Vow to Kill It
Interview with Michael Zweig, economics professor at the State University of New York, conducted by Scott Harris
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After 12 years out of power in the U.S. Congress, Democrats now control both the House and Senate. Among the Democrats' most loyal constituencies during the years of Republican rule was organized labor, which has seen a steady decline in membership from 20 percent of the workforce in 1983 to 12 percent in 2006. After Democrats regained majority status on Capital Hill, congressional leaders prioritized several issues of major concern to American workers, including an increase in the minimum wage and reform of labor laws, making it easier for unions to gain workplace recognition.
On March 1, the House passed the Employee Free Choice Act, by a 241 to 185 vote. The legislation, hailed by the AFL-CIO as the most important labor law reform in 70 years, will allow workers to establish a union when a simple majority of workers sign cards supporting it. The measure, which still faces the threat of a filibuster in the Senate and a veto by President Bush, denies employers their right, under current law, to demand secret-ballot elections. Labor activists assert that the hiring of union-busting consultants, intimidation, and firing of workers advocating unionization, have tainted workplace elections and put labor at a severe disadvantage.
Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Michael Zweig, professor of economics at the State University of New York, Stony Brook and director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life. Zweig assesses the importance of passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and the obstacles ahead for America's labor movement.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Unions have had government protection in legislation since 1935, since the Wagner Act was passed, which protected workers from management interference to make it possible for workers to get their own independent representation in relation to management, but over time, what has happened is that union rights, worker rights have been scaled back through a whole variety of decisions -- administrative and legal decisions -- that basically now leave workers completely unprotected when they go to organize unions. And one evidence of that is that in the United States today, fewer than 12 percent of workers are actually in unions, when surveys indicate that nearly 60 percent of workers want to be in a union. So what it means is that if 60 percent want to be in a union, and 12 percent actually are, there's something like 75 or 80 percent of workers in the United States who want to be in a union who are not in one. So then you have to ask, why are those 75 or 80 percent of workers not in a union, when that's what they say they want? And the answer is, management resistance in the way of firing workers who are interested in organizing a union; in the way of just stonewalling and taking workers aside one-by-one and management saying to the workers, "If you vote for this union, we're going to have to close the shop, you're going to lose your job, they're just a bunch of thugs"; and intimidating workers from joining unions.
What the Employee Free Choice Act does is it make it easier for workers to actually get union recognition free from interference and free from intimidation on the part of their employers. And that's the significance of that act. It was passed in the House, I'm sure there's some trouble in the Senate coming up. But even if it does pass in the Senate, President Bush has made it very clear he will veto that legislation because the Bush administration has been very, very hostile to unions and to working people, not just on this issue, but all the way across the board on everything.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Now people who are opposed to this legislation say that free elections are the way to go, that a workplace election giving workers the choice of whether they want to go with the union or stay out of the union is really the fairest way possible. Why don't you respond to that given the fact that the playing field is not all that level when it comes to these elections in the workplace.
MICHAEL ZWEIG: Well, the key word in there is free elections. Under the original Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act, there were provisions for free elections where workers could actually vote free from interference on the part of management. And, the early stages of the 1930s and 1940s, in fact, millions and millions, literally of workers in basic industry and in many other sectors organized themselves into unions and won better working conditions and higher wages, benefits, health care and so on through the workplace. Management has resisted that from the beginning. And over time, the way in which management power has increased, has meant that what had been free elections stopped being free. And workers were no longer able to exercise their independent judgment about whether they wanted a union because management was increasingly given the power to interfere on the basis that management has the right of free speech and they can't be told to shut up. So, corporations have been given increasing power to interfere with these elections. So what this law is trying to do is to reverse that imbalance, what the law allows -- this Employee Free Choice Act, is for workers to simply sign a card, a declaration, that they want to have a union. And if a majority of workers in a plant or in an office or in a facility, sign such cards, then this law says that's an indication that they want a union and they should have a union, and management should not then have a right to say, "No, no, we want to drag this out, we want to have an election in which we can interfere and we can intimidate workers."
BETWEEN THE LINES: How much do you think this legislation -- if it is signed into law anytime in the future -- will it help unions increase their membership, given that unions have come in for a lot of criticism in recent years for being too bureaucratic, not really being relevant to the average workers' life and certainly not being aggressive in terms of organizing at the workplace?
MICHAEL ZWEIG: I think you have a situation in which there are these difficulties within the labor movement which are then blamed on the workers themselves and their representatives. You just enumerated a number of complaints against labor, "it's bureaucratic, it doesn’t really care about negotiations, and it's just in there for dues," and all kinds of other stories. The fact of the matter is that 60 percent of American workers want to be in a union, and only 12 percent are. So, you know, for all the stories that get told, working people understand that they need a union, and they want a union, and they want to have it under their authority and their control. Huge amounts of resources have been devoted to organizing, and it has come up with very, very little, and the reason is not because workers and unions don't want to organize, it's because management has so much power to be able to defeat those organizing campaigns that we have this problem. Michael Zweig is the author of "What's Class Got To Do With It: American Society in the 21st Century."
Related links at http://www.btlonline.org/btl031607.html#3hed
• The Center for Study of Working Class Life • Working Class Studies Association
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at http://www.btlonline.org . This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending March 16, 2007. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Anna Manzo and Scott Harris.