Enable Choice on Labor Unions

By Steven Hill and Dmitri Iglitzin
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Tuesday, March 20, 2007; 12:00 AM

The top priority of pro-labor members of the United States Congress is passage of the employee Freedom of Choice Act, a law that would make it easier for workers to organize a union in their workplace and negotiate a contract with their employer. This legislation has been the subject of vigorous public debate among labor organizations and business lobbyists, yet it only scratches the surface of a badly needed overhaul of U.S. labor law.

Currently, labor law is stuck somewhere in the mid-20th century instead of in the 21st century. It has yet to catch up with a new era where the basic relationships between workers, employers, government and the global economy are changing before our eyes.

Leading economists acknowledge that rising productivity and soaring corporate profits have not translated into benefits for the average American worker. Instead, median incomes are flat, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, pensions are being de-funded and corporate employers are threatening to shred the social contract with their employees that has prevailed for 60 years.

Every nation today is grappling with a fundamental question: How do we enact sufficient security for workers while not stifling entrepreneurship and economic growth? In this age of globalization, the most successful countries will be those that can strike the proper balance between business, workers and government regulation. They are like three legs of a stool, and if any leg is too short, it will be destabilizing.

Yet under current labor law, workers and labor unions are getting short shrift. For example, a subsection of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 makes it an unlawful "secondary boycott" for a labor union to bring any type of pressure against any person or business other than the employer where the unionized workers work. That means unions cannot challenge a parent corporation's directives to its subsidiary or a subcontractor, even if the directive might cause all of the employees to lose their jobs.

Imagine if we applied labor law to American foreign policy. Under this standard, recent calls by lawmakers for government-employee pension funds to dump shares of foreign companies doing business with Iran would be an illegal secondary boycott. Why? Because our 'dispute' is not with the foreign companies, it's with Iran. In fact, our overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan was an illegal secondary boycott, because our 'dispute' was not with the Taliban, it was with Al Qaeda. Our only beef with the Taliban was they were 'doing business' with Al Qaeda by providing sanctuary for training facilities.

Sound ridiculous? Well then so is that part of U.S. labor law.

The record shows, not only in the U.S. but also in other nations, that healthy labor unions are an important democratic safeguard of worker rights and conditions. For this reason the Reagan administration was a vigorous defender of labor rights in Eastern Europe and of the union Solidarity in Poland in the 1980s. Even the Republican Party's official platform in 1968 stated that organized labor "has contributed greatly to the economic strength of our country."

Yet today, labor law allows American workers trying to unionize their workplace to be harassed and even fired. A nationwide study by the University of Illinois at Chicago found that 30 percent of employers fire pro-union workers and 49 percent threaten to close a work site when workers try to unionize.

Moreover, under the Bush administration's National Labor Relations Board and its interpretations of law, millions of workers have been inappropriately reclassified as "supervisors," rendering them outside the protections of labor law.

Making matters worse, employers vigorously propagandize their employees at the workplace. According to the University of Illinois study, 91 percent of employers force employees to attend coercive, anti-union meetings one-on-one with supervisors. Union representatives however have no legal right to have access to workers on the job, contrary to labor law in other nations.

The result of these and many other antiquated subsections of current labor law has been the hemorrhaging of union membership, which is now at 12 percent of the workforce, down from 35 percent in the 1950's and 20 percent in 1983. Unionization in the private sector has slipped to 7.4 percent, the lowest in a century.

Certainly labor unions have made their share of mistakes, as have businesses such as Enron and WorldCom. Still, labor unions have an important role to play in striking the proper balance between employers, employees and government in this age of globalization.

When a different Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, it held the philosophy that protecting the right to form a union helped to restore "equality of bargaining power between employers and employees." That Congress clearly saw workers' rights as good for the overall economy.

If today's Congress is serious about addressing rising inequality and insecurity for American workers, passing the Employee Freedom of Choice Act is just the beginning. Much work awaits, with many outdated labor laws squarely blocking the road.

Steven Hill is director of the political reform program for the New America Foundation and author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy" (http://p3books.com/books/10_steps.html). Dmitri Iglitzin is a labor law attorney in Seattle and is an Affiliate Professor at the University of Washington School of Law.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company