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A Union Beats a Fence

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

This week, just before it turns again to immigration, the Senate takes up the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would restore to America's workers the right to join unions. Depending on how you look at it, the Senate's timing -- moving to bolster middle- and working-class incomes before it alters our immigration policy -- is either impeccable or 30 years too late.

For those adamantly against the efforts to legalize the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants among us, opposition has become the vehicle to express a range of anxieties that go far beyond the question at hand. Some of those anxieties are racial and cultural. Others are economic -- the fear that immigrants take jobs from native-born Americans, the fear that they drag wages down.

There is, as those of us who support the legalization of the undocumented must admit, some -- though by no means universal -- validity to these fears. Immigrants are not employed solely as farmworkers, gardeners and nannies. One look at construction crews or the women who clean hotel rooms makes clear that there has been, in many regions, a vast shift in the composition of sectoral workforces.

But that's just part of the story. Historically, opposition to immigration rises in times of broad economic insecurity and wanes in periods of economic tranquility. During the Depression, the government shipped Mexican migrant workers -- and American citizens of Mexican descent -- back to Mexico. Conversely, when Congress acted in 1965 to allow considerably more immigrants into the United States, it was a time of widely shared prosperity and mass job security of the sort that has vanished from America today.

The intensity of the conservative movement's opposition to legalizing the undocumented is the direct result of the movement's doctrinal limitations: Immigration is the only element among all factors, large and small, contributing to Americans' economic insecurity that conservatism can address. American conservatism, after all, is committed to radical, globalized, laissez-faire capitalism at the same time that it is committed to nationalism and traditional cultural values (however mutually negating these commitments may be).

American conservatism defends the right of corporations to ship jobs overseas; it has opposed legislation raising the minimum wage and restoring employees' right to join unions and bargain for higher wages. However valid conservatives' fear of the economic harm from immigration (and for most Americans, it's not very much), the issue itself has become conservatism's surrogate for greater anxieties about globalization and the restratification of the U.S. economy -- anxieties whose very names conservatism dare not speak.

This week, though, the Senate turns to legislation that not only speaks about the economic stagnation of all but the wealthiest Americans but that would actually begin to end it. The goal of the Employee Free Choice Act is simply to give workers the right to join unions without facing the (currently) one-in-five chance of being fired for playing an active role in a campaign to do so.

Firing employees for endeavoring to form unions has been illegal since 1935 under the National Labor Relations Act, but beginning in the 1970s, employers have preferred to violate the law -- the penalties are negligible -- rather than have their workers unionize. Today, employer violations rank somewhere between routine and de rigueur. Over half -- 51 percent -- of employers illegally threaten workers with the specter of plant closings if employees choose to unionize (1 percent actually go through with this threat, according to Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner). And even when workers vote to unionize, companies can refuse to bargain with them and can drag out the process for years -- indeed, forever. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service found that when unions win representation elections, 45 percent of the time they then fail to secure contracts from employers.

This kind of hardball resistance to American workers' attempts to unionize, combined with the decline of manufacturing, has achieved catastrophic success. Only 7.5 percent of private-sector workers today are unionized, down from one-third during the decades after World War II. And guess what? The middle class has been cut out of the ever-dwindling group of our countrymen who profit from the nation's economic growth. The EFCA would seek to remedy this by offering workers an alternative path to forming unions -- the submission of signed affiliation cards from a majority of employees would trigger union recognition -- and by mandating binding arbitration if employers stonewall efforts to win a first contract.

If we're really serious about restoring economic security in America and economic vitality to the middle class, the EFCA would work a whole lot better than would a fence on the border.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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