Dick Meister: A free choice for U.S. workers


By Dick Meister

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom,  has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.

Now that the electioneering and political posturing is done with, it's time for President Obama and congressional Democrats to finally deliver on their promises to enact the long delayed Employee Free Choice Act that's at the very top of organized labor's political agenda.

EFCA, as it's sometimes called, has been stalled in Congress for three years. It would give U.S. workers the unfettered right to unionization that would raise their economic and political status considerably.  But that would come at the expense of employers, who have been able to block a large majority of workers from exercising the union rights that labor law has long promised workers.

EFCA would in essence strengthen the 78-year-old National Labor Relations Act – the NLRA – to make it easier for workers to form and join unions.  Which is the clearly stated purpose of the NLRA.

The lack of solid legal protection is a primary reason that, despite the higher pay and benefits and other obvious advantages of union membership, only about 12 percent of the country's workers belong to unions.

 Surveys show that nearly one-third of all U.S. workers want to unionize but won't try because they fear employer retaliation – and for good reason. Every year, thousands of workers who do try to unionize are illegally fired or otherwise penalized.

Employers faced with organizing campaigns commonly order supervisors to spy on organizers and force workers to attend meetings at which employers describe unions as dues-snatching outsiders, often asserting falsely that unionization will lead to pay cuts, layoffs, outsourcing of work or even force them out of business. Similar messages are delivered to workers one-on-one by supervisors, frequently along with threats of disciplinary action if they support unionization.

In many of the instances in which workers nevertheless vote for unionization, the employer simply refuses to agree to a contract with the union. Workers who strike to try to force employers to reach an agreement or otherwise follow the law face being permanently replaced.

The NLRA is supposed to protect workers from such actions. But employers have been able to blatantly violate the law because the penalties are slight – usually small fines at most, and they're often not even imposed. Workers fear complaining to the government, knowing it usually takes months – if not years – for the government to act, and that meanwhile they may lose their jobs.

The most important provision of the Employee Free Choice Act would automatically grant union recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an employer's workers – unless the workers opted to have recognition decided by an election.

As the law now stands, only employers can decide whether to use a membership card check or an election to determine their workers' wishes. Employers almost invariably choose elections because of the opportunity the election campaign gives them to pressure workers into opposing unionization.

Other key provisions of the Free Choice Act would fine employers up to $20,000 for each violation of the law and call for arbitrators to dictate the terms of employers' contracts with unions winning recognition if the employers stalled for more than four months in contract negotiations with the winners.

The act made it through the House shortly after it was originally introduced in 2003, but was blocked from Senate passage by a Republican filibuster. It seems unlikely that the bill would even get through the House now.

Labor, however, has not backed off, and can still expect the support of President Obama, other key Democrats and civil and human rights groups, religious organizations and other influential union allies to back its demand for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act or something very much like it.

But are labor's political allies willing – and able – to finally do what they have long promised to do? Are they willing – and able – to join labor in assuring American workers the firm union rights that have too long been denied them?

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom,  has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his columns.



Interesting times no doubt...we shall see what happens.

Posted by Mike on Nov. 30, 2012 @ 10:23 am

real significance any more, and I suspect this will be a low priority for Obama. After all, he's not standing again and, anyway, the unions have nowhere else to turn.

Don't hold your breath on this one. It's a battle that was lost 50 years ago.

Posted by Anonymous on Nov. 30, 2012 @ 11:50 am

*afraid* of what worse outcome might stem from their continued intrasigence.

As a matter of fact, the union movement's past success essentially represents a concession to the working classes made solely because the industrialists of that day believed that the means of production was otherwise at risk of being taken out of their hands.

(Not sure if this is a duplicate or if it will be posted this time as I got a strange error message)

Posted by lillipublicans on Nov. 30, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

obvious reasons - a gun to your head might effect your compliance but never wins you over in the end.

Unions are an archaic throwback because the economy has changed in the last 100 years from a situation where a few wealthy souls employ millions to a distributed workforce where knowledge workers typically share the fruits of corporate profitability thru bonuses and stock options.

As such, people these days identify far more with employers and the successful, than with those who seek to stay wed to Victorian and Dickensian concepts of class warfare.

Unions exist now only in the last frontier - unskilled public sector workers who cling to their ridiculous benefits structure. Hardly a viable message going forward.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 02, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

A New York Times/CBS Poll found that 60% of Americans opposed restricting collective bargaining while 33% were for it. The poll also found that 56% of Americans opposed reducing pay of public employees compared to 37%. And there was strong pushback across the country on election night against efforts to rein in public employees unions.


Posted by Guest on Dec. 02, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

public sector workers themselves or rely upon someone who is, that 56% figure is hardly surprising. And it certainly doesn't mean that we should ignore the increasingly burdensome cost of paying bureaucrats to shuffle papers and push pens.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 03, 2012 @ 9:49 am

statements by Guest #1.

Really, on balance the reply to my amounts to smugly ignorant effrontery, probably based on profound self-delusion and self-flattery, but I will specifically address the bizarrely stupid notion that public sector workers are unskilled. ("Hardly a viable message going forward.")

While unionized labor may seem to be the only practical answer to corporate and financial power, I don't see it as a pathway to general satisfaction. A system in which labor and capital are opposed to each another is fundamentally inefficient.

And Guest #1, you can call it blackmail, but that only demonstrates the intellectual palsy behind your statements; certainly you wouldn't call it blackmail if an employer tells an employee they will be fired if they fail to arrive on time to work so many days running, or if they fail to call in sick upon being absent from work.

Posted by lillipublicans on Dec. 02, 2012 @ 4:22 pm

(although not in some parts of the public sector, apparently, where instead you are told to stay home and draw full pay).

Unions have little purchase outside of the public sector and a handful of specific businesses e.g. docks, hotels etc. If the American people deemed unions to be vital to their welfare., we would not have had decades of decline of union power as we have seen.

Even in a so-called "union town" like San Francisco, we see little union member ship outside of city hall, the hotels and the docks. It's just not relevant to most skilled knowledge and service workers any more. And given that we really don't have manufacturing here any more, that leaves only unskilled worker as feeling that they need such paternal pandering.

I cannot even recall the last place I worked that ahs union representation, and that tells you how much unions have shrank. Few outside progressive extrtemists holdouts would argue otherwise.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 03, 2012 @ 9:53 am

Labor is responsible for not making itself relevant to American working people as labor had the resources to do so and did not.

The fact that the labor bosses are still getting paid as labor is decreasing in power indicates that there is no feedback to correct for failure in the loop and labor will continue its downward spiral. But the labor bosses will still get paid because if they did not exist, capital would have to invent them.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 03, 2012 @ 10:31 am

a credibility problem thats tems from their extremely narrow focus and obviously skewed agenda.

The very word "Labour" sounds hopelessly dated to most Americans, who prefer a meritocracy to collective mediocrity.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 03, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

Most folks never succeed on the merits, so I'm not sure that if an honest referendum were held, that the libertarian protestant world view would hold.

That said, organized labor only organizes for its own institutional prerogatives and has long since abandoned any sort of class solidarity.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 03, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

The average American is wealthier than 99% of the people on the planet, even though he isn't any better at his job then them, and often worse.

Unions have nothing to do with that - it's the success of the American economic model.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 03, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

when you write that "most folks never succeed on merits" that sounds like old-school eugenicist-dating progressivism at best.

Posted by lillipublicans on Dec. 03, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

you wrote that "most people never succeed on the merits." It sure sounds like you are saying "most people suck" (?)

As for organized labor abandoning class solidarity, I'd say that it largely *never* *had* class solidarity. Class solidarity comes from people, not such organizations, for the most part.

The IWW had class solidarity; they got tarred as bombers and anarchists.

The more militant CIO which got absorbed by the milque-toast AFL, they might have promoted more class solidarity; more lately unions have come to be quite focused on their own specific membership. The IBEW is a good example.

Posted by lillipublicans on Dec. 03, 2012 @ 7:33 pm

I'm saying that the capitalist casino lottery produces many losers and a handful of winners. Measured by economic standards, most Americans don't succeed, come out mediocre and by a top of the bell curve and below measure incorporates a supermajority of people. Workers of the world, relax.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 03, 2012 @ 8:17 pm

above average. But they are overpaid and, while that is good for living standards in the US, it does not bode well for the future.

But for now, even "failures" in the US are comfortably off by global standards. Failure here would be regarded as success in many countries.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 9:23 am

High wages mean high demand and more business and higher profit than lower wages. The paradox of thrift will kill you.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 9:30 am

High wages mean nothing. Compared to the rest of the world the US has high wages. But if 1/2 of wages pay rent and 1/3 are paid in taxes, there's not a lot of disposible income left to buy goods and services from other businesses.

What's the agenda? Throw out a bunch of stupid comments and hope one or two stick? Throw out a bunch of stupid comments to make the entire SF left look stupid?

You're not that old. You could actually try to get a masters degree in econ from one of the local UC's or other excellent schools in the region so that maybe you weren't so ignorant about a subject that you keep posting about, almost always incorrectly.

Life may be just a stupid joke to you so might as well say and do the most outrageous things to try to get some attention. But when you're publicly lamenting you don't get enough party invites or get invited to insider political events, recall these idiotic posts where you say the most stupid things. Most reasonable people don't want to be around reactionary, stupid people. Thus your name is not going to get called much since you continue to make the most asinine posts on subjects that you know very little about.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

Switzerland, Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden, Australia, Iceland, Italy, Denmark, Spain, Singapore, Finland, Ireland and Canada.

Posted by lillipublicans on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 9:43 am

it depends how they measure "quality". I can see major problems with many of the countries on that list.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 10:18 am

Clearly you see your quality of life as being exclusively measured by how many worse off people are in your midst. That is the only way that your self esteem can be kept from being flushed down the toilet like a turd is through lavish doses of schadenfreude.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 10:50 am

those countris cited would not feel like "quality" to me e.g.

Singapore - police state
Spain - basketcase of Europe
Finland - too damn cold, next to Russia

And so on.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 11:01 am

Yes, well said.

The distinction between those who feel lifted by poverty around them and those who feel diminished by it is the clear distinction between reactionaries and progressives.

Posted by lillipublicans on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 3:42 pm

the IBEW. Actually, you make raise important issues in that comment.

Posted by Eddie on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 9:29 am

and added mention of the IBEW with some trepidation -- but it is one among several examples of unions which sometimes can work against societal -- and therefore class interests.

Unions, just like corporations are hardwired to do the best for their constituent members no matter how imbalanced the result may be. The more successful the union, the more that is likely to happen.

A case in point is IBEW support for nuclear power.

Posted by lillipublicans on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 9:59 am

agree with everything my union supports and my comment wasn't meant as a criticism of yours.

However, my membership in the IBEW means better working conditions, a better wage and benefits, better safety, etc. than what my non-union counterparts receive.

Posted by Eddie on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 2:32 pm
Posted by Guest on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

where everyone had equal power and equal rights and the time to consider the various labels of political/economic systems, the winner would be libertarian socialism.

In the real world, however, where the vast majority of people struggle to meet basic needs and survive in a socio-economic system based on the exploitation of labor and the environment by the greedy, such an exercise is just mental masturbation.

Posted by Eddie on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

Our compass should point towards the ideal and our actions constrained in the real of the here and now should line up with those compass points.

Posted by marcos on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

would support socialism?

That's not even true in Europe, let alone the US.

Posted by Guest on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

which indicate below average reasoning and written communication skills, you'd be lucky to be judged as mediocre.

Posted by Eddie on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 2:40 pm
Posted by Guest on Dec. 04, 2012 @ 3:23 pm