April 26, 2009

Employee Free Choice Act

The WSJ's Thomas Frank makes a strong case for the EFCA, that would strengthen the NLRA or Wagner Act, which has been continually gutted since its passing in 1935, first by the Supreme Court Mackay decision in 1938 (see here for a defense) that companies could permanently replace striking workers, and next by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The EFCA would make it easier for workers to start collective bargaining and to create unions. But it looks like the GOP is set on blocking it by a Senate filibuster. Here's some info on the bill. And an excerpt from Frank's article:

"After massive lobbying both by labor and by business, it appears that the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which, as it now stands, would allow workers to organize in many cases merely by signing cards instead of holding elections, will not have the 60 votes required to get past a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

Now, to be pro-labor is to resign yourself to years of failures and defeats, with few tea parties along the way for consolation. Even so, the setback on EFCA has to be a bitter one. Union members worked hard to elect Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress, as they did to put Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in the White House. And now, just as in those previous two periods of Democratic governance, labor's friends are having trouble enacting basic labor-law reforms.

To understand why we need new rules governing unionization, look no further than yesterday's New York Times, where Steven Greenhouse told the story of a Louisville, Ky., hospital whose nurses tried to form a union but failed after they were reportedly threatened with losing their benefits among other things.

Such practices are commonplace and well-documented by Human Rights Watch and others. But labor's case never seemed to hit home. Instead, conservatives have carried the day, playing on lurid stereotypes to hint that intimidation by unions is the real worry and that EFCA spells the end of secret ballots in the workplace and hence of democracy itself."

Of course there are cases of large companies treating workers well without much need for collective bargaining, such as REI, Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Costco. Still, it would seem constitutionally unjust to actively oppose legislation that would protect this basic right. Even Adam Smith recognized the importance of unions in order to keep workers from becoming exploited:
"The masters [i.e., employers], being fewer in number, can combine much more easily; and the law, besides, authorises, or at least does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of parliament against combining to lower the price of work; but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, or merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long-run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him, but the necessity is not so immediate." (The Wealth of Nations, volume I, ch. 8, paragraph 12).
We also find the seed of the concept of alienation in Smith (later more fully developed by Marx) when he argues that unions are necessary to keep labor from becoming so divided into ever simpler (and cheaper) tasks that workers would become "as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become."

This site provides more information on the EFCA including a tool for sending an email to one's congressperson and senators urging them to support the bill.

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