Restoring Dignity: The Employee Free Choice Act

If you know anything about politics, it is a game changer. It is a total game changer for the next 40 to 50 years if the Democrats are able to get this legislation.
—Sen. John Ensign (R-Nevada)

We like driving the car and we’re not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us.
—Lee Scott, former Wal-Mart CEO

I once worked professionally in the labor movement, and I often say that I have never felt the slightest discontinuity in moving from labor organizing and labor strategizing to ordained ministry. To me all of it has been the Lord’s work—and here is why.

All the people straining at the gnats in biblical interpretation—namely, what God may or may not think about various forms of sexual expression—consistently miss the big theme within the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. That theme is deliverance from bondage and God’s call to build just community, to resist Egyptian ways of oppression and sweated labor. As many have pointed out, the Bible has far more to say about economic justice than any other subject, to the point that right worship of God is directly equated with dealing justly with one’s fellow humans (witness the Isaiah 58 text used by Sharon Watkins, who preached at the national prayer service held on the day after Barack Obama’s inauguration). The biblical Sabbath and Jubilee keynotes—keynotes also struck by Jesus right at the start of his public ministry—contain within them God’s main message to us about maintaining just community. And what “proclaim liberty throughout the land” means, in practical terms, is abolish debt peonage and correct corrosive imbalances in wealth and social power.

Does this land of ours suffer from debt peonage and corrosive wealth imbalance? Is that even a question??

I was moved beyond measure to see the inauguration-related concert at the Lincoln Memorial open with Bruce Springsteen’s “Come On Up To The Rising” and end with Pete Seeger leading the multitude in singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Bringing Seeger up there wasn’t corny. It connected this moment to the last great economic crisis of 75 years ago. And I was glad that Pete made sure to include this little-known verse of Guthrie’s anthem:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

It’s not 1934, and we’re not at the point of mass hunger quite yet. But to pretend that working families haven’t been hit really hard—and with many more blows to come—is delusional.

The Employee Free Choice Act

For more than three decades US policy actively facilitated the corporate/conservative agenda of concentrating wealth at the top. We’ve seen where that got us. And there is no better engine than the power of workplace democracy and collective bargaining to put more money into the hands of regular people—and also to restore some of the dignity that creation theology says rightly belongs to those who labor honestly. That is why progressive religious leaders need to get behind the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which will come before the new Congress within the next few months.

EFCA would strengthen the labor movement, and I should acknowledge from the get-go that religious progressives historically have had mixed feelings about trade unions. Catholics and Jews have generally had much more favorable views of unionization than white Protestants, in part because of the vast number of Catholic immigrants to the United States who benefited significantly from their union membership but also because of the impact of Catholic and Jewish social teaching. White Protestants (my peeps) have too often tended to cling to a by-your-bootstraps ethic of individual achievement, joined to a suspicion that there is something slightly sinister and foreign about union leaders and about the union concept of class solidarity.

I grew up ten miles from the Kohler Company’s sprawling furnaces and factories in eastern Wisconsin during the seemingly endless and ultimately victorious struggle by the UAW to unionize those facilities. The Dutch Calvinists I grew up among—those who worked at Kohler—were mostly strikebreakers. It was a religious conviction among many that the owners should be able to operate their works without union interference.

But I am here to argue that at this moment in American life, all clear-thinking people of faith should be rallying around the union banner. If we’re going to draw analogies between Obama’s challenge and FDR’s challenge, we would do well to recall that what drove the New Deal and significantly remade American politics during the Roosevelt years was the tripling of US union membership that took place over the ten years following 1935—the year that workers first got real bargaining rights under the Wagner Act.

Led by the United Steelworkers, United Auto Workers, United Mine Workers, United Rubber Workers, and United Electrical Workers, the Depression-era labor movement raised wage standards and working conditions for a vast swath of the workforce, but it did much more than that. The CIO—Congress of Industrial Organizations—used its considerable political muscle to back the full range of New Deal reforms: close to home matters like workplace safety and wage/hour laws, obviously; but also banking reform, food and drug safety, Social Security expansion, interstate commerce regulation, the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps—a very long list of changes that built the social house we still live in, despite all the Republican efforts from 1980 onward to tear that house down.

And although this dimension is still little understood or appreciated, industrial unionism also nurtured the seeds of the nascent civil rights revolution. Let it be said that it was the Communist element within the CIO that took the most advanced positions on civil rights—an aspect of the movement that J. Edgar Hoover had a lot of fun with during his overly long career, but something I feel should be celebrated today as a badge of honor for the old American Communist Party, despite any other nefarious designs it entertained.

The revived US labor movement thereafter made a signal contribution to the fight against Hitler and Tojo by means of a grand compact struck with the government regarding war production. The government got labor peace (for the most part) and an incredible output of planes, ships, and tanks; the unions got to keep their representation rights along with a voice in production councils. Union density—the percentage of private-sector workers represented under collective bargaining agreements—continued its steady rise into the 1950s and 1960s, creating something new on the face of the earth: a working class capable of enjoying a middle-class living standard.

As late as 1973—also the peak year for real worker income in the United States—union density hovered at around 25% in the private sector. Today that number is just 7.4%. The bargaining power and the political clout of organized labor have been effectively eviscerated.

Why the drastic fall-off in union density? The standard explanations offered by corporate propagandists and neoliberal economists—technology, globalization, and outsourcing—tell part of the story but only part.

The story that doesn’t get told is a bit uglier; it is the story of brutal union suppression by employers who figured out that it’s much cheaper to take the penalties currently handed out for labor law violations (which are extremely weak and rarely delivered) than to allow workers to unionize without interference in free and fair representation elections.

By the Numbers

The cold, hard facts are these:

Polls consistently report that 60 million Americans would join a union tomorrow if they could, which clearly suggests that there’s something wrong with the current system for allowing workers to decide this question.

Just going by official National Labor Relations Board numbers (which surely underestimate the magnitude of violation), 27,000 workers had their workplace rights violated in 2006; many of these were fired outright for union activity.

44% of workers who do win union representation never get to a first contract because of employer stalling and other chicanery.

According to a Cornell University study, 92 percent of private-sector employers use closed-door “captive audience” meetings to snuff out union organizing efforts; 80% require line supervisors to assist in union-avoidance activities; 75% hire outside consultants (union-prevention specialists) who set up command centers within the company to wage all-out war on the union; 50% threaten to shut down operations to scare workers; and 25% illegally fire union supporters.

These aren’t just economic issues or labor abuses; they are human rights issues, and they were recognized as such in a Human Rights Watch report issued in 2000. In the years since that report came out, the odds against American workers trying to organize have only gotten worse.

The proposed Employee Free Choice Act will fix this fatal imbalance in straightforward ways. First, it will impose real penalties for labor law violations so that employers would no longer find it cheaper to take the penalty than to obey the law. Second, it will provide for impartial arbitration of first contract terms if no agreement has been reached within 120 days of union recognition, thus preventing the common employer practice of dragging out negotiations so that workers lose faith in the union—sometimes even decertifying it. Third, EFCA will simplify the recognition and certification process by enabling unions to gain legal recognition upon producing a majority of valid worker signatures on union authorization cards: i.e., the “card-check” method, against the more traditional practice of petitioning for an NLRB-supervised secret ballot election.

This, needless to say, is the provision that has the employers foaming at the mouth. They have already spent millions—and will spend millions more—on misleading print and TV ads asserting that if secret ballots were good enough to elect Obama, they should be good enough for union supporters as well. The slick kill-EFCA misinformation campaign is being coordinated by Mark McKinnon, the former media advisor to George W. Bush and John McCain.

The reality is that the card-check method is already widely used—accepted by employers as diverse as AT&T and Kaiser Permanente—and there is absolutely no evidence that it is any less democratic than voting by ballot: a method that often allows bosses to use every trick in their book to turn workers against the union. For employers to assert that it will be absurdly easy for unions to collect a majority of worker signatures, or that unions will browbeat workers into signing authorization cards, is not only a fantasy but is also fantastically hypocritical in view of the well-documented intimidation that employers themselves routinely bring to bear to defeat unionization drives.

A Game-Changer

But enough about the technical aspects; here is the bottom line: conservatives who call EFCA a “game changer” are absolutely right. Whether you think the game needs changing depends on whose side you are on, to quote the venerable labor anthem. Imagine what a doubling or tripling of union membership during the hoped-for eight years of Obama time could mean for progressive advancement in this new century!

Because make no mistake: the new labor movement is solidly progressive. It has been the biggest single force promoting universal, government-supported health care coverage, protecting Social Security from Wall Street privatizers, and advancing a green jobs/green energy future. But that’s not all. The racist, jingoist, homophobic, misogynistic movement of American labor’s worst years—the George Meany/Lane Kirkland years—is long dead and buried. Today’s labor leadership is solidly aligned behind LGBT equality, comprehensive immigration reform, and much more within the broad human rights and civil rights agendas. Labor’s near-death experience in recent years taught it to be much better at alliance-building than the movement of 40 years ago—much better at practicing an ethic of genuine reciprocation in relation to other social movements.

In other words, progressive clergy and lay folk have no excuse for hanging back from lending their full support to EFCA at this crucial hour.

For a long time we’ve been hearing that the religious right played the same role in maintaining nearly 30 years of Republican hegemony that the labor movement once played in maintaining Democratic hegemony. The religious right is now in some considerable disarray, though by no means disabled. What better time, and what better way, for religious progressives to help spur a big turn in our politics than to lend some help right now in restoring the central role of a progressive labor movement in advancing social justice?

Preachers, start your engines!