Thursday, March 26, 2009

Are the Republicans really looking out for the interests of workers?

As last week, with health care, I find myself motivated this week to write beyond my normal once-weekly update pace because of my strong feelings on an issue. Anyone who has read my thoughts here knows that I feel very strongly about the civil rights of working Americans and American consumers. Nor will it surprise anyone who has been reading this blog that I feel the greatest threat to the civil rights of Americans in this era is unrestricted corporate power. I have shared what I feel is compelling evidence advancing this argument. I have compared the chief executives and board members of American corporations to pirates, and generally I have had to admit the pirates come off as more honorable and less nakedly predatory. My update this week was a piece in support of the Employee Free Choice Act, one the pieces linked above. Yet I feel the need to write again on the same topic before it is even Friday. Why?

Part of it is what Peter Ferrara wrote in the American Spectator just the day after I wrote my piece on Senator Specter and the EFCA. The misrepresentations of history, distortions of polls and statistics, and outright lies in Mr. Ferrara's article are too numerous to list. Labor unions are responsible for helping bring workers the 40 hour work week, cost of living raises, overtime pay, and vacation/sick pay. From Mr. Ferrara's writing, however, one would assume labor unions were directly responsible for the credit crisis and our current economic woes, despite the fact that I am unaware of any Teamsters working on Wall Street. Mr. Ferrara writes about health coverage and paid family leave as if these were bad things that no sane employee would want.

The real parties responsible for the weakening of American industry are the leaders of American industry. The outsourcing of manufacturing jobs has put thousands of people out of work and turned industrial towns into ghost towns. The same companies that are responsible for this job loss have asked for government money, because their problem is not a problem of production costs: it is a problem of failing to make a product that Americans want to buy and putting a price tag on it that Americans can afford. Automoible prices have skyrocketted even as Detroit has dumped workers and shifted manufacturing to Mexico, and yet Ford and GM are surprised no one buys their cars? No one can afford to buy their cars!

Mr. Ferrara's arguments are terribly weak. This is a typical paragraph of his article:

Unions also routinely suffer corruption. Dues are diverted for the personal gain of union leaders. Union pension funds are looted. Check out this history yourself as well.

Perhaps Mr. Ferrara should, himself, read the history of what has been going on in the banks and on Wall Street. I'm pretty sure I remember hearing about corruption. Yet he attacks unions and argues that business is the best defender American workers can have. He continues to claim (as all the opponents of the bill claim) that the EFCA robs workers of their right to vote by secret ballot. This is not true. It is a pure lie. The law does not prevent a secret ballot. It allows a petition in cases where employees believe that their employer will take measures to prevent or influence a union vote. Mr. Ferrara claims that in half of all union elections, unions are voted down.

This sadly is true, but it is not because of the free choice of workers. It is because of the union busting powers given to corporations by state 'right to work' laws and 'at will' employment agreements.

Unions give workers the power to bargain collectively instead of singly. A lone worker, arguing with the human resources representative in a corporate office, is at a significant disadvantage in negotiating. He has no advocate or support, and the company has the power to fire him if his attempt to advocate for his own interests cross whatever line they wish to draw. I have been in this situation, alone and knowing that I have no power to do anything to defend myself against clear injustice. I wonder if Mr. Ferrara has.

While Mr. Ferrara's article admittedly makes me quite angry, it is not the only reason that I am writing. I made the attempt (which I admit to knowing was futile) to lobby my state's two senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, to vote for the EFCA. To the credit of both senators, I received replies. To the discredit of both senators, these replies were entirely dismissive of my concerns and extremely personally condescending.

This is the reply of Senator Alexander:

Dear Chris,

Thank you for getting in touch with me and letting me know what's on your mind regarding the rights of workers.

All Americans should have the same freedom to work. I believe that working Americans should have the choice to join a labor union or not join a labor union. I also believe that workers should have the right to decide important issues through the use of a secret ballot.

There are few more fundamental rights than the secret ballot, whether it's a vote for president, mayor, or to unionize a workplace. American workers - particularly in right-to-work states like Tennessee - deserve to be able to vote their conscience without having to worry about potential retaliation.

You don't have to be a labor lawyer to know that peer pressure and outright intimidation are often factors in unionization campaigns. The secret ballot grants workers the freedom to make their decision on the merits, rather than pressure from union organizers or management. That is why I joined as an original cosponsor of the Secret Ballot Protection Act, and will continue to oppose legislation that would allow a workplace to be unionized simply by the gathering of signatures from a majority of employees.

I'm glad you took the time to let me know where you stand, and I'll be sure to keep your comments in mind as this issue is debated in Washington and in Tennessee.



As you can see, Senator Alexander essentially repeats conservative talking points while telling me that he cares deeply about the rights of workers and is only screwing them over for their own good. I don't think his good intentions will help them very much. He is not only opposed to the ECFA but he is a co-sponsor of the grossly misnamed Secret Ballot Protection Act, because he believes the American worker needs to be protect from union tyranny so much that American corporations must be granted more union-busting power than they already possess.

Worst of all, Senator Alexander has the gall to claim that 'right to work' laws are good for workers. Perhaps Senator Alexander is unaware of this fact, but 'Right to Work states' have the lowest real wages and most crushing poverty rates in the country. Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee are not precisely known for their large and prosperous working class. He is greatly concerned about workers' right to vote to unionize by secret ballot, but appears unconcerned that those who attempt to organize union votes are frequently fired for the attempt. What about their 'right to work'?

At least Senator Alexander actually understood my point of view, however. Senator Corker either did not, or failed miserably in an attempt to be 'cute' with his reply.

Dear Mr. Richards,

Thank you for taking the time to contact my office with your opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act. Your input is important to me, and I appreciate the time you took to share your thoughts.

I agree with you that the various card check legislative changes that have been proposed would amend federal labor law in ways that take them back a hundred years. Chief among these is the Employee Free Choice Act. It would allow union leaders to strong arm and pick off workers one by one, intimidating them into signing cards to organize a union. I do not believe that most Americans or most union workers who truly understand what this bill means would support it. This "card checking" would end the 72-year precedent whereby workers are guaranteed the right to unionize through federally supervised secret ballot elections. The right to secret ballot has been something that we have practiced since our birth as a country.

On June 26, 2007, I voted against moving forward on H.R. 800, the Employee Free Choice Act of 2007, a bill that was passed in the House of Representatives two years ago. The motion failed, effectively stopping the Senate consideration of the bill at the time. More recently, Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts introduced a new version of the Employee Free Choice Act, S.560, on March 10th, 2009. The bill is currently before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Please know that I will continue to oppose any such card check legislation as we move forward in Congress.

You may be interested to know that on February 25, 2009, I became an original co-sponsor of S.478, the Secret Ballot Protection Act of 2009. This bill, as the name implies, would guarantee American workers the right to a secret ballot vote on whether or not to form a union. As with current law, these elections would be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Action has not yet been taken on S.478, but I look forward to supporting this bill should it be brought to the Senate floor.

Thank you again for your letter. I hope you will continue to share your thoughts with me as I serve you in the United States Senate.


Bob Corker
United States Senator

Anyone reading this should know by now that I most certainly do not believe the ECFA is the chief threat to workers' rights in this country, nor am I particularly threatened by card check. After I made the earnest request that he reconsider his position, Senator Corker instead gloated about the votes he has made to continue to allow a company to deprive me of my civil rights with gleeful pride. Suffice it to say that I certainly do not believe that Senator Corker is serving me in the United States Senate. He's serving the people who fired me when my girlfriend was hospitalized and required care. At least 'Lamar', or whomever on his staff wrote the reply for him, actually read what I wrote to him.

If you live in Tennessee and you work for a living, you should be aware that Senators Alexander and Corker believe your interests are best served by serfdom.

My girlfriend's employment agreement was updated recently, to include a policy stating that her employer will fire her if they feel her conduct on her own time, away from the workplace, when she is not on their clock 'reflects poorly' on them. Corporations are now seeking to deprive people of their civil rights off the job, as well as on the job.

Yet Mr. Ferrara, Senator Alexander, and Senator Corker believe that the biggest threat to the rights and livelihood of working Americans, in these difficult economic times, is organized labor.

The term 'out of touch' has been ridden into the ground. So I am just going to suggest that the three gentlemen are out of their minds.


Fritz said...

While the EFCA allows a secret ballot, it does so only after public petitioning from workers -- in other words, after a sufficient number of workers take actions that can target them for retribution. This really is not acceptable.

And anyone who thinks union members do not engage in retribution did not grow up in the rust belt. (And, yes, companies also engage in retribution when they can).

Chris Richards said...

I am not going to argue that illegal coercive behavior by unions should not be curbed. It should. However, we have existing criminal law to cover such situations. Restrictive legislation that leaves individual employees alone with no recourse or advocacy when their civil rights are violated, or blocking legislation to give employees such recourse and advocacy, hardly makes the situation better. The current laws favor union-busting and violations of employees' civil rights by employers and deny the employee the right to seek redress.

If someone engages in 'retribution' against people who don't sign a petition, arrest them. The current structure of the law makes a secret ballot election of the kind being 'defended' problematic to impossible and is far more 'unacceptable' than the EFCA.

Fritz said...

Chris, could you please tell me why secret ballot elections are problematic to impossible under current labor law?

Chris Richards said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Richards said...

The 'at will' employment agreement is a tremendously dishonest device by which an employee is granted a 'freedom'to quit without notice, which is nearly in all cases immediately restricted in the very terms of the agreement, in exchange for giving the company absolute firing power and forfeiting legal recourse if fired. These agreements make union busting very easy, and are a big factor in the statistics Ferrara cites about union vote results.

Current law also requires the employer to be represented at the ballot box in such a manner as to allow the employer significant influence over the voting process.

This, combined with the unfettered firing power of 'at will' agreements, is a significant intimidation factor with nothing to balance it out. There is no way for the employees to feel 'safe' voting under such circumstances, if the employer wishes to use coercion to preempt a union.

Fritz said...

I've always worked at "fire at will" companies, so it has never been an issue for me.

Can you tell me what you mean by the corporate representation at the ballot box and the undue influence it generates? Are you stating that the corporation can view the individual ballots, so that the vote is not secret? If so, then I certainly would agree with you that that is a corrupt process. If you aren't stating that, then could you please be more specific?

Chris Richards said...

Employer representatives 'observe' the voting process. Employees frequently vote with such observers standing not far away, watching them as they vote. This is no different than any intimidation alleged on the other side. Sometimes such observers do attempt to discern how someone is voting, sometimes the presence is purely for intimidation purposes.

I've always worked at 'at will' companies as well, and it didn't become an issue for me until my girlfriend was hospitalized. I admit to my fair share of specific anger over my personal experience.

Whether one has personally been wronged or not, however, the form of the agreement itself is unjust. It establishes a system of arbitrary coercive authority in which the employee has no rights the employer does not deign to grant.

Fritz said...

Chris, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't political parties allowed to have observers at polling places? I thought that was one of the principles of fair elections -- that the process is transparent enough to be observed.

And is the union also allowed to have observers at the election as well as the corporation?

Chris Richards said...

I used to work presidential elections, so I actually know something about this... there are very strict limits on the type of activity allowed and verboten by party representatives in election voting. Most of the time they drop in, ask to see the turnout, and leave. They are not allowed to even speak to voters, and campaigning must be a mandated distance from the polling place. These controls are not in place in union votes. The law being sponsored as an 'alternative' to the EFCA, by my state's senators, would strengthen the employer's influence over the process rather than weaken it.

Union representatives do not have the power to fire or lay off employees. An employee is less likely to be paranoid about some random Joe than about the guy everyone knows is the boss's screw.

I am not saying employers do not have the right to representation at votes, but they do not have the right to influence or manipulate said votes and the current system gives them a great deal of power to do so.

Good faith negotiation cannot take place without a balance of power. Without it, the more powerful party exploits the weaker party. Right now, employers are vastly more powerful than employees, who have been legally deprived of all or nearly all recourse. The balance needs to be redressed, to create a viable basis for negotiation. A 'free market' based on de facto serfdom is simply not possible.

Fritz said...

Chris, I am completely in favor of a proper secret ballot for union certification. I absolutely agree that polling places should be free from coercion, and that nobody (either corporate or union representatives) should be allowed to coerce the workers or see how they are voting.

I just believe that allowing unions to present a majority of public "we want to join a union" cards as an alternative to an election is as bogus as allowing management to present a majority of "we don't want to join a union" cards.

The power balance between workers and employers is quite location, occupation, and time specific. In suburban Seattle only a few years ago, unskilled laborers at restaurants were getting significantly more than the state minimum wage. That is not true now.

Chris Richards said...

The petition would not be presented by the union, as EFCA is written, but by the employees. This may be a fine distinction, but it is a distinction none the less. After the petition was submitted, then the submitting employees would be a union. Considering that a petition is as open and transparent as it gets, and that elections are not eliminated, I am still unconvinced that democracy is being thwarted.

Fritz said...

Chris, I'm sorry, but if you can't see how "Your fellow employees would really love you to sign this union petition. We're sure your lovely wife and your kids would also love you to sign this petition. And did we mention your fine dog?" could be intimidating, then, well, enough said.

Chris Richards said...

The problem with these kinds of arguments against the EFCA is that they claim the possibility of illegal measures for which there is legitimate legal recourse and which can be pursued and prosecuted if they arise is somehow equal to entirely legal measures against which an employee has no recourse. If someone says 'sign this or else', that's extortion. It's a crime. Racketeering and RICO laws may apply as well. The police can be called. If I am extorted, I have legal recourse. It does not mean it won't happen or there is zero risk, but it means that there are always consequences in place to deter such actions.

If an employer says 'if the union vote passes we'll have to lay off sixty percent of our workforce' no crime is being committed, under the current law. Employees are helpless to do anything about it. There is no recourse of any kind, and no accountability for the employers.

Unions can be held accountable at law if they use intimidation or violence. Employers cannot be held accountable at law for threatening their employees' jobs.

Claiming that a vote against the EFCA somehow protects workers in a way they are not protected if it passes is a ridiculous position. The same legal protection applies in the same situation, either way.

On the other hand, making it easier for those workers who genuinely wish to unionize to do so gives them recourse against their employer they do not currently possess.

Those are the facts, plain and simple.

The real irony is the tactic of attempting to intimidate people into opposition to the EFCA through claims that they will be intimidated if it passes.

Fritz said...

Chris, lots of things are crimes. But I really don't see why there just can't continue to be secret ballots as the way to decide union recognition.

If someone said he wanted to make political votes public but that we shouldn't worry because extortion and vote buying would be illegal, pretty much everyone would have a good laugh and ignore him. I don't see this as any different.

Chris Richards said...

That's neither strictly true nor a good analogy. First of all, no one is saying there can't continue to be secret ballots. The bill simply extends the right to petition that citizens already enjoy into this area. It removes restrictions on rights, it does not add any new restrictions on rights.

Second, a vast number of people are pointing out quite a few problems with the current voting process and attempting to suggest alternative solutions. There is the uproar over electronic ballots, the complaints about counting procedures, ad infinitum. While there is much disagreement about how to proceed, the concerns are not being laughed off.

The circulation of a petition is as integral a part of democracy as elections, and extending the right of petition into this field does not lessen the right to vote. Claims otherwise are silly.

Fritz said...

Chris, I absolutely agree that a majority of employees (or even a number less than a majority) should be able to sign a petition for union representation that would then trigger a secret ballot for union representation, just as, in many states (like WA state), a percentage of citizens can sign a petition to trigger a secret ballot over an initiative.

Alas, that is not what EFCA does.

It does appear that at least this part of EFCA is dead for now.

Chris Richards said...

It does appear that the petition portion of the EFCA is dead, yes. Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas) has piled on the train to attempt to kill EFCA.

I still support the petition provision, and I still think it necessary. I have worked in workplaces where such a petition would quite simply be the only way of establishing a union because management would never allow a secret ballot vote to occur.

At my last employer, company policies changed on a monthly basis, those policies were applied arbitrarily and inconsistently, and with no regard for the health, safety or family of the workers. Attempting to speak to human resources about a problem meant inviting corporate retaliation.

An industrial society means that someone will always have to do the work to keep things running, as much as utopians would like otherwise. I would like to see their human rights protected and sometimes a secret ballot just isn't possible. If an employer is dead set on preventing a vote, a vote will not happen. There is no legal way to force a vote.

I would certainly be willing to compromise on the circulation of a petition to legally force a vote, rather than establish a union, IF the measure carried significant anti-retaliatory measures to protect the organizers of the petition and those who signed it. In the absence of such measures, a petition to immediately establish a union is preferable to the current situation.