Compromise on an Imperfect Union Bill Is Hard to Find

Monday, May 11, 2009

WE HAVE SAID before that the Employee Free Choice Act is a flawed solution to a real problem: unfair barriers in the way of union organizing. We have been critical of the labor movement for its reluctance to consider alternatives that could level the playing field between labor and management. So we have, we hope, some standing to criticize a leading management group for its absolutist stance against not only the Employee Free Choice Act as written but also against compromise proposals. Instead of engaging in a good-faith effort to fix the problem, the group, the Coalition for a Democratic Workforce, chooses to deny that there is a problem.

In the often fierce battle over organizing a workplace, current law and practices unduly favor an employer determined to defeat unionization. From the point of hiring, employers have unfettered access to workers to make the case against forming a union. When unions launch organizing campaigns, employers can require workers to attend repeated anti-union presentations, while unions have no comparable access to workers and are left to try to contact them off company premises. Although it is illegal for employers to fire or threaten workers for joining a union, enforcement is inadequate, with penalties too late and too small to deter violations.

The Employee Free Choice Act would address this imbalance by allowing unions to gain recognition if a majority of workers sign cards indicating support for the union, among other provisions. This change goes too far in the other direction, but one attractive solution would be to speed up the time frame for holding union elections while allowing union organizers some access to employees in the workplace.

That approach is being floated in Congress by, among others, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who suggested that an election be held within three weeks of the union filing such a request with the National Labor Relations Board and that union organizers be allowed "equal time under identical circumstances" to make their pitch to employees if management has held "captive audience" speeches making the anti-union case. Some of labor's strongest backers in Congress, aware that the measure as written probably lacks the 60 votes needed, are discussing this and other potential compromises.

The other side remains dug into a "no compromise" stance. In a "Dear Senator" letter last week, the Coalition for a Democratic Workforce, composed of 580 organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, summarily dismissed any such discussion. "Let us be clear and frank on this matter; there can be no acceptable 'compromise' on any issue of labor law reform due to the very real threat posed by EFCA," the group wrote. Moreover, the coalition failed to acknowledge any flaw in the existing process -- except to the extent that it suggested, falsely, that the current playing field is tilted in favor of unions. That hardly sounds like bargaining in good faith.

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