Topic A -- The End of Labor Reform?

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
Sunday, April 12, 2009

When Sens. Arlen Specter and Blanche Lincoln announced their opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, some forecast the end of labor reform. The Post asked lawmakers, labor leaders and others what's likely to happen.

JOHN J. SWEENEY

President of the AFL-CIO

Our nation stands ready to emerge from the modern-day era of the Robber Baron. For three decades, we've valued corporate profit over people and CEO pay over people's pocketbooks. The results of this absurdity are clear: 8.5 percent unemployment (and still rising). Investors who asked us to bend the regulatory rules and then drove the banks and housing market into the ground. We haven't seen this level of income disparity since the Great Depression.

The hopeful news is that our nation is on its way to ending this madness and creating an economy that works for everyone. The Employee Free Choice Act will be crucial to that change. Our labor laws are broken, and people have lost the freedom to improve their lives through unions. When working people lose collective power, there is no real counterweight to corporate greed.

Labor law reform will pass in 2009. Seventy-three percent of the public supports it, as do President Obama, Vice President Biden and the leadership in Congress. As legislation goes into committee, the fundamental question is, how do we bring balance back into the system?

Labor law reform must meet three principles: workers need a real choice to form unions and bargain for a better life, free from intimidation; we have to stop the endless delays in negotiating a first contract; and there must be real penalties for violating the law.

Let's restore people's democratic right to build a better life through collective bargaining and create an economy that works for everyone.

ELAINE L. CHAO

Labor secretary from 2001 to 2009; distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation

There's irreconcilable cognitive dissonance in the Democratic Party's self-image as pro-worker and its congressional leaders' push for the "card check" bill. The cynically titled Employee Free Choice Act would deny workers the ability to cast private ballots in unionization elections and then deny them the right to ratify, or not ratify, labor contracts drafted by the government when negotiations in newly unionized workplaces exceed the bill's rigid timetable.

Workers would have no choice -- and no ability to cast a private ballot on unionization of their workplace -- if just one more than half of workers signed pro-union cards. These union-funded signature drives can entail entreaties at workers' homes and other places where workers are vulnerable to harassment and intimidation.

Under current law, if 30 percent of a workplace expresses interest in union representation, the National Labor Relations Board supervises a formal election in which workers have the right to vote their conscience under the protection of private ballots. Special interest groups seek to subvert that democratic process and boost unionization at the expense of workers' rights. This special interest effort, supported by congressional Democrats, is distinctly undemocratic and anti-worker.

ARLEN SPECTER

Republican senator from Pennsylvania

After listening to the hundreds of interested parties who contacted me, I decided to oppose this legislation because it eliminated the secret ballot and mandated arbitration.

I believe labor's justifiable complaints can be remedied by major revisions to the National Labor Relations Act. In the face of significant reduction in union representation, workers' rights have suffered from massive foreign outsourcing of jobs, reductions in health care and losses in pension benefits.

The National Labor Relations Board has become badly politicized and dysfunctional in dealing with unfair labor practices by both sides. When Republicans control the White House, management consistently wins. With Democrats in control, labor wins. The board regularly takes five or six years, sometimes longer, to decide cases. Coercive tactics by both sides go unchecked.

In 2007, when this legislation last came up, I was explicit that I was not for the act on its merits but that I thought labor law needed reform. A detailed floor statement was followed by an extensive law review article spelling out my position. When asked by either side, I have forcefully reiterated that position; no one can justifiably claim surprise.

Last month, I suggested 12 modifications to begin reforming the 1935 act. Labor's campaign for legislation has put these issues on center stage. Business would be wise to cooperate in enacting adequate reforms. If there are 60 Democratic senators after the 2010 elections, this bill is likely to become law.

TOM HARKIN

Democratic senator from Iowa; lead co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act

Advocates of the Employee Free Choice Act are willing to work with anyone who is serious about strengthening workers' rights and have always known that the bill would go through an amendment process. But we need real reform that will empower workers and restore balance to the process.

Even many of those who don't support the bill in its current form agree that the current system is broken. For that reason, I remain confident that we can ultimately pass legislation that will help workers build better lives for themselves and their families.

LANNY J. DAVIS

Attorney for Level Playing Field Committee; special counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 1998

I am a pro-labor Democrat, and I oppose the act because it wouldn't guarantee workers a secret ballot. I also represent three companies -- Costco, Starbucks and Whole Foods Market -- that favor a different approach. Both labor and management groups, if they engage in constructive dialogue rather than name-calling, may find that there are substantial areas of agreement on labor law reform.

A third way would guarantee the right of management and unions to require a secret ballot under all circumstances and permit management to initiate union decertification campaigns, and it would not include certain provisions requiring mandatory arbitration that dictates contract terms. But it would also guarantee a fixed time period for elections, ensure unions and management equal access to employees for campaign purposes and expedite enforcement and impose stricter penalties for serious violations of law by labor and management.

This is a true third way, rather than simply demanding the Employee Free Choice Act be passed or outright defeated, and is similar to the alternative Sen. Arlen Specter favored in a floor statement. It is also a politically viable approach.

WILLIAM B. GOULD

Former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board; emeritus professor of law at Stanford Law School

The Employee Free Choice Act substitutes employer intimidation with union-induced peer pressure on workers to sign cards, which has led some legislators to oppose the bill. But a "compromise" initiative from Starbucks, Costco and Whole Foods is also misguided because, among other things, it doesn't specify how long union elections should take. If that is left up to the National Labor Relations Board, which has been excessively politicized in both Democratic and Republican administrations, elections could be delayed massively, giving employers time to distribute anti-union propaganda.

A politically effective compromise must provide not only for damages and fines for dismissals and discrimination during organizing campaigns -- the absence of which have long been an invitation for employer misconduct -- but also for board-conducted elections within five to 10 days of a union-filed representation petition. This and union access to company property to communicate with employees are the essential ingredients for elements of organized labor and moderate Democrats who have abandoned the ship of reform.

LARRY COHEN

President of the Communications Workers of America

This debate should be about outcomes. There's a connection between incomes falling in the United States for more than a decade and U.S. workers having the lowest bargaining coverage of any global democracy. Why are U.S. workers nearly alone among the world's democracies in gaining bargaining rights only after a horrible battle with their employers and a win-lose election against their boss, who can run a campaign throughout the workplace and do whatever he wants?

It's amazing that 70 years after the British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote to President Roosevelt about the recession gripping the U.S. economy, and stated that "I regard the growth of collective bargaining as essential," the Chamber of Commerce and others are replaying an ancient debate. Most of us learned that without increased buying power, recessions deepen. Most of us learned that collective bargaining promotes workplace fairness and increases buying power. Millions of families gained bargaining rights after passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act -- incomes increased and the U.S. middle class expanded as never before. We should be seeking the same outcomes today.

DAVID BRODY

Author of "Labor Embattled: History, Power, Rights" and professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Davis

When Sen. Arlen Specter came out against the Employee Free Choice Act last month, labor's hopes for fast-track passage went up in smoke. Few noticed Specter's caveat: "Card check is going to come back," he warned his Republican colleagues, and it behooved them to seek a compromise while they still had the votes. Specter was half-right. Card check is not going away. But neither can it be compromised.

To understand why not, consider the peculiar nature of American anti-unionism, in particular the abiding penchant of our employers to fend off unionization by penetrating the process. They did this first through an immense spying program and then, after World War I, by establishing company unions. When the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act) outlawed these fake unions, employers poked around in the law for another entry point and found it in the majority-rule provision. First, they got its implementation narrowed down to the representation election and then, on that basis, declared a free-speech right to participate. When the Supreme Court upheld their claim, the die was cast. Ideally, of course, we would restore the law's original intent and bar employer speech as inherently coercive. Second best is card check, which leaves speech rights undisturbed but -- imperfectly, to be sure -- insulates workers from employer coercion.

In the coming days, labor should resist the inclination of their congressional allies to make a deal. Any likely concessions will be of only marginal benefit and leave untouched the central problem, which is that company-dominated elections put a stranglehold on union organizing. Better to mind Specter's caveat and wait for what 2010 brings.

DAVID BONIOR

Chair of American Rights at Work; former House Democratic whip

The groundswell of support for the Employee Free Choice Act is visible throughout the country. If we truly want to rebuild our economy, we must make it easier for workers to join unions and bargain, not borrow, their way into the middle class. It is no coincidence that the greatest time of prosperity for America's workers was in the three decades following World War II, when union density was at its highest. That density allowed collective bargaining to occur on a massive scale; this expanded and sustained the middle class for decades.

The debate on this legislation comes down to a choice: helping big corporations, some of which got us in this economic and financial mess, or helping America's workers. While big corporations are receiving billions in financial bailouts, workers are losing their jobs, their homes, their pensions and a fair shot at achieving the American dream. It is unacceptable to return to a bubble-and-burst economy. To rebuild the economy, we must expand collective bargaining. Otherwise, the dreams of a middle-class life will stay out of reach for more and more Americans.


More Washington Post Opinions

PostPartisan

Post Partisan

Quick takes from The Post's opinion writers.

Washington Sketch

Washington Sketch

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the capital.

Tom Toles

Tom Toles

See his latest editorial cartoon.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity