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are corporations over-reacting to the EFCA? March 17, 2009

Posted by That Guy in Economic Downturn, Observations.
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With the growing specter of job loss looming for many Americans, even those who think they’re cemented in their jobs, it would only make sense that people would want to find ways to protect themselves as best they can. Unions, for all the bad press they get, can sometimes be very strong allies that make things better for everyone — I know that my mother, a retired teacher, found her union to be a tremendous asset when her former principal unfairly discriminated against her. The principal was disciplined and transferred, my mother’s grievances were addressed, and in the end the good guys won.

Unions are kind of like an insurance policy; you pay your dues in case you need them, and you usually don’t, but on those occasions when you do, you’ve already paid them to work on your behalf. It’s great when it works, but just like a bad insurance carrier, it’s terrible when it doesn’t.

However, this article is not about unions. It’s about the right to unionize in the first place.

Alternet* has an excellent article about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which aims to give workers the right to organize into/with unions if they so choose. From the article:

From the article:

The need for unions is hardly obviated when workers have been dramatically increasing their productivity and generating more national wealth, only to be rewarded with falling wages, plummeting purchasing power, elimination of health-care benefits, and cancellation of pensions. Meanwhile, corporate downsizing and offshoring of jobs are rampant, part-time work is the new norm, and job-safety rules have been sacrificed on the altar of Wall Street’s profit demands.

I’ve spoken before on companies forcing employees to do more with less, eliminating positions and consolidating them with other already-overworked employees, and expecting all of that amid the recent rash of furloughs that have plagued the nation’s companies. It’s hard enough to do your own job well, but to do other people’s? Without the budget, the training, or the time? Without anyone around to explain things because your co-workers are all on furlough or outplaced? With all that facing employees around the country, why wouldn’t they want to organize on their own behalf?

Well, probably because it’s not safe for work:

Companies are free to be aggressively hostile to any employee who so much as whispers, “What we need around here is a good union.”

And if an employee actually talks to coworkers about unionizing the place, it’s common for that person to be harassed, disciplined, demoted, and even fired by corporate managers. Tens of thousands of workers are either disciplined or given the boot each year for daring to support unionization. During organizing campaigns, nearly a third of the companies involved fire at least one worker for union activity, sending a chilling message to other employees.

Such sledgehammer tactics are, of course, illegal, but the corporate-dominated NLRB’s enforcement process is so drawn out and grueling that few of the abused workers can afford even to try getting justice. And if a corporation does happen to be cited by the labor-relations board for violations, the penalties are a joke. Management treats them like parking tickets–an inconsequential cost of doing business and a cheap means of stifling workplace democracy and shutting out unions.

I’ve never been pro-union. I feel that, in the best kind of society, unions wouldn’t be necessary because everyone would do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, even if it’s difficult. But this isn’t a perfect country, and certainly not a perfect world, and as a result, people need the right to organize into unions without the threat of retribution.

But here’s the thing: the EFCA doesn’t out-and-out say “you will have unions at your company”. Here’s what the act guarantees:

  1. Majority sign-up. If a majority of employees in a workplace sign cards attesting that they choose to form a union, the NLRB must recognize this “card-check election” and certify the will of the workers. This alternative, majority-rule process is used without a problem in Canada and by some U.S. corporations, including AT&T and Kaiser Permanente. If employees prefer, they still can decide to use the current elections system–the choice is theirs, as it should be, since it is their organization.
  2. Contract arbitration. If workers choose to unionize, their representatives and those of the corporation have three months to negotiate a first contract. If they cannot reach an agreement, a federal mediator is brought in to try resolving the differences. If no agreement is reached after 30 days of mediation, the disputed issues are submitted to binding arbitration, thus preventing endless foot-dragging.
  3. Penalties against coercion. No more wristslaps for intimidating, firing, or otherwise pressuring employees in the process of deciding on unionization. It is illegal to use coercion, and this provision jacks up the penalties so there is a real deterrent to violations, including $20,000 fines for each incident and treble back pay for employees who’ve been fired, demoted, or otherwise discriminated against for unionizing activity.

So maybe CorporateSpeak won’t become a union shop. (Some of our employees are, but the majority are not.) But maybe it will. Maybe someday I’ll be part of a union that prevents me from working overtime without the option to take overtime pay instead of comp days (which I’d much rather). Or maybe I’ll decline to join the union. The thing is, once your business becomes become a union shop, you have to join. Otherwise, when the union strikes or bargains, you won’t be a part of it. And when the union tells its employees to strike, your job will get immeasurably more difficult because you’ll be a scab.

In China Mieville’s novel Perdido Street Station, the worst possible crime for a garuda (bird-man) to commit is theft of choice — taking away someone’s choice to live (through murder), to reproduce (through rape), and so on. I hate having my choices taken away. Without the EFCA, I don’t have the choice to unionize without fear of reprisal (my company can retaliate against me). With the EFCA, if my co-workers choose to unionize and I don’t want to join… well, odds are good I won’t have that choice either.

I say the corporations are over-reacting, but I don’t know that unions are the best long-term solution. They’re better than what a lot of people have now, but they come with their own set of problems. Still, for those of us doing the work of three people, losing money to furloughs and working more unpaid overtime than we’d care to admit (at risk of losing our jobs for reporting it), they certainly look tempting.

***

* Full disclosure: Alternet is generally known as a liberal/left-leaning news site.

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