By David Madland
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Friday, August 3, 2007 12:00 AM
"Norma Rae," the movie that won Sally Field an Oscar for her portrayal of a textile worker, was made nearly 30 years ago, yet its basic point -- that people who want to join a union often face harassment and intimidation -- is more relevant today than ever.
Half of all workers in the United States now say they would vote to join a union if they could, up from the 30 percent that said they would when Americans were watching Norma Rae on the big screen, according to an Economic Policy Institute report. Yet union membership continues to decline -- down from one-third of private sector workers in the decades after World War II, to just eight percent today -- because existing laws make joining a union a Herculean task that few want to undertake.
Without strong unions, our entire community pays a heavy price: wages lag, race and gender pay gaps widen, and insecurity, poverty and inequality increase. Inequality is now at the level it was in the 1920s, when unionization rates were also below 10 percent.
Unions raise wages and benefits for their members. And when unions are strong and able to represent the people who want to join them, these gains spread throughout the economy; non-union companies increase their wages and all workers have more purchasing power, producing a "virtuous circle of prosperity and jobs," according to University of California at Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken. A Center for American Progress report finds that strengthening unions is critical to reducing poverty in the United States.
Unions also give workers a greater voice at work and in our democracy. On the job, unionized nurses have been able to work with hospitals to improve staffing levels so that patients receive quality care, and firefighters have been able to implement new safety programs to reduce on-the-job fatalities. In politics, the involvement of union members has been key to the passage of public-spirited legislation, from the Social Security Act in 1935 to the minimum wage increase that went into effect this week.
Unfortunately, workers considering forming a union today face an undemocratic system and are commonly intimidated. Employers legally can force workers to attend anti-union meetings, including "one-on-one conversations" with supervisors, an occurrence that happens in over 90 percent of organizing campaigns, according to a Cornell University study. Employers can even "predict" (but not "threaten") that unionization will force the company to close its doors. Workers often are pressured by employers to reveal their private preferences for the union.
When employers break the law, penalties are weak and insufficient. Workers are illegally fired in about one-quarter of union organizing campaigns but can at best hope to recover their lost wages and get reinstated in their jobs, often after years of legal battles. And even if workers prevail against these odds, employers often refuse to negotiate with the union.
In March, the House of Representatives took an important step to address these problems, passing the Employee Free Choice Act by a vote of 241 to 185. The act would allow an employee to choose to join a union by signing a membership card -- a system that works well at the small number of workplaces that choose to permit it -- and also promotes good-faith bargaining so that employees can negotiate a first contract. The act does not deny workers their right to vote in a union election, as some conservatives maintain, but rather allows workers to choose between signing a membership card and having an election.
Unfortunately, the Senate has yet to do its part for workers and pass this bill. Opposition from a few conservatives has prevented the will of the majority of Senators from prevailing. Conservative supporters of the status quo often rely on disingenuous sound-bites about workers' democratic rights to give an air of legitimacy to their self-interested opposition. They argue that preserving the current "secret ballot" system is vital for democracy, yet express little concern that the current system fails to meet a number of democratic standards and does not keep "secret ballots" a secret, according to research by University of Oregon Professor Gordon Lafer.
Rather than listen to insincere conservative arguments, Congress should recognize that more and more workers want to join a union and should be allowed to do so without fear or other unnecessary obstacles.
David Madland is the Director of the Work/Life Program at the Center for American Progress.