By Tris Carpenter
The Employee Free Choice Act (HR 800) passed the US House of Representatives in early March. The bill would level the playing field for workers trying to organize by requiring employers to negotiate with a union that had collected a majority (50 percent plus one) of Authorization Cards from the employees who would be affected. This would wipe out the horrifically abused National Labor Relations Board election procedure that is routinely used to stall union drives in the hopes of scaring off supporters.
HR 800 would also create new and more dramatic penalties for those employers who would break the law and attempt to coerce employees by firing and/or disciplining their co-workers, threatening to shut down operations, or trying to buy votes with promises. Finally, the bill would require that when a union contract could not be reached within a certain time period, the outstanding issues would be submitted to an arbitrator who would impose his/her judgment as to what is fair and equitable.
It would be welcome legislation––and a timely gift to the Editors Guild, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this spring. But most labor experts agree that the bill has about as much chance of passing in the US Senate as my dog does of winning American Idol, yowling coyote-style at passing fire trucks notwithstanding. And, if the bill somehow manages to garner the 60 supporters necessary to avoid a filibuster, it would take divine intervention to avoid a veto by President Bush.
And so goes (down in flames) the most interesting proposal in labor law since the remarkably similar Labor Law Reform Act of 1977––which, coincidentally, was itself defeated in the US Senate by a Republican filibuster.
The AFL-CIO, the major labor federation in our great and free nation, has been trying to field this bill and get it voted upon for at least a decade or so. Of course, the Republican Congresses in charge since 1994 have been quite effectively keeping this idea cooped up in committee. Now that the Democrats have taken control of both chambers, the idea is back, and the AFL-CIO is hawking it every step of the way. Press releases are flying back and forth but, for all the hype, this bill is still pretty much DOA.
HR 800 would create new and more dramatic penalties for those employers who would break the law and attempt to coerce employees.
That said, what has been interesting to me is the number of our members who have contacted me in the last few weeks to talk about the bill and their experiences during IATSE/MPEG organizing campaigns. All of them have expressed something to the effect of, “If we only had that law when we were organizing…” To me, it means that folks who have seen the inside of the NLRB’s secret ballot process first-hand recognize that the horror stories about employers run amok are, indeed, quite true. It is clear to me that the arguments for passage of this bill resonate fully with those who would have been in a position to be helped by it.
In addition, the bill’s passage in the House has brought to the front page (okay, maybe more like page three or four) the reprehensible conduct that workers––who have a federal right to form a union––can expect from employers who try to avoid the union. What had been a side note in American working life is now being covered in the press, if only for a short period of time. People who have never undertaken the fight themselves must wonder whether their own employers would treat them so badly.
The fact is that HR 800 is a fine place to start this discussion. I hope that the debate keeps going, that the stories from real working folks keep getting published. Over time, hopefully, the public might see the ease with which the federal right to form a union can be subverted, and that stronger laws are necessary in order to make that right worth more than the paper upon which it is written.
So, I’ll keep rooting for the Employee Free Choice Act, much like I rooted for the hapless Red Sox for oh-so-many years growing up in the shadow of Fenway Park. I know the odds are long, but maybe, just maybe, something miraculous will occur.
Otherwise, I guess we’ll wait ‘til next year. I think 2008 would be a grand year to make some big changes.