Beyond "Card Check"

Now that the 2008 presidential campaign season is in full swing, voters who identify with organized labor may be feeling dazed and confused as to which Democratic candidate to support. They all talk a good game, of course, and they’re all thrilled to show up at union-sponsored campaign events and fundraisers. But the recent past provides little comfort to anyone who wants to assume that just any Democratic president will inevitably provide strong support for pro-labor policies.

It's true that in 1993, as one of his first acts as president, Bill Clinton issued an Executive Order prohibiting federal agencies from doing business with employers that permanently replace striking workers. Yet, that order was overturned by the federal courts and never heard from again. The Clinton-Gore Administration also supported legislation that would have prohibited private companies from permanently replacing striking workers -- but it didn’t push hard for the law. Instead, the Clinton Administration expended its political capital on pushing for the so-called "free trade " deals NAFTA and GATT. And in the last Democratic presidency prior to Clinton's, President Carter used his political capital to push through the Panama Canal Treaty rather than to support much-needed reforms of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

So those who care about labor need to be sure, heading into the primaries, of precisely where the candidates stand on their agenda. And progressives who are aware of the current legislative effort to allow workers to form unions through a so-called "card check" election, instead of only through Labor Board-certified elections, ought to know what should be on that agenda beyond the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Here's where to start:

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Enactment of the EFCA is, indeed, the labor movement’s current number one legislative priority. It passed the House of Representatives in March of this year, by a vote of 241 to 185, and is currently pending in the Senate. EFCA would enshrine the principle of "majority signup " (allowing workers to form unions based on a written showing of majority support), mandate binding arbitration for first contracts where the parties cannot agree, and impose financial penalties on employers for firing pro-union employees. In doing so, it would dramatically improve the ability of workers to unionize. An April 2007 study by the Campaign for America’s Future estimates that passage of the EFCA would increase union membership by 10 percent, providing an additional 3.5 million people with health insurance and nearly 2.8 million more people with pensions.

Beyond majority signup lies a host of other policy reforms, some enshrined in legislation, some not yet. Including labor standards in future trade agreements, and the modification of existing agreements, are a must, for example.

Another example: The Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Tradeworkers (RESPECT) Act, sponsored in the Senate by Chris Dodd, would reverse some particularly egregious recent decisions by the National Labor Relations Board and narrow the definition of "supervisors " -- a role excluded from the protection of federal labor laws. This change would permit millions more workers to be represented by unions, if they so choose.

Beyond reversing the bogus new categorizations recently promulgated by the NLRB, though, there remains the issue of extending collective bargaining rights to real supervisors. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, as far back as 2002, there were more than 8.6 million private-sector "first-line " supervisors, not much different from "leads " or "foremen, " all of whom are currently denied the right to engage in collective bargaining. Many states give public-sector supervisors the right to organize and be represented by a union. There is no good reason why private-sector supervisors, too, should not be given these rights.

Meanwhile, equalizing union access to unorganized workers at the workplace during organizing campaigns is another priority. According to a recent study by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois, 91 percent of employers force employees to attend anti-union meetings one-on-one with supervisors. Unions, on the other hand, have no access to unorganized workers on the job.

Numerous states are currently contemplating a state-level solution to this problem, known as the Worker Freedom Act (WFA), which forbids employers from using "mandatory meetings " to force their personal beliefs on workers. WFA was introduced into 8 state legislatures in 2007. It also was passed by the Colorado legislature in 2006, before being vetoed by the Governor. One question to ask Democratic presidential candidates: Will they support addressing this problem at the federal level?

Two broader agenda items go back to address early, foundational anti-labor statutes. Under the original terms of the NLRA, unions everywhere in the country were permitted to negotiate contracts that require all represented employees to pay their "fair share " of the cost of that representation. This was changed in 1947, over President Truman’s veto, with the introduction of Section 14(b) -- the so-called "Right-to-Work " provision. 22 states have since declared such contracts unlawful. An effort to repeal this provision passed the House in 1965, but was successfully filibustered in the Senate. After 60 years, it’s time to eliminate this provision and extend equal rights to unions throughout the country.

Another reform, long in coming, is repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act’s ban on "secondary boycotts. " In many industries, the project owner or building owner's decision about whether to use a union or non-union contracting firm is the single most important factor in deciding both whether a job will be performed by unionized workforces and whether the workers will be fairly compensated. Yet under current law, unions cannot challenge a parent corporation’s directives to a subsidiary; they cannot challenge a building manager’s directives to a janitorial service; and they cannot challenge any decision to change a subcontract -- even if the decision is to cease using a union-signatory firm that is paying a living wage to its employees. Where do the candidates stand on reforming this law?

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Some of these are major reforms, and they may not be easy questions for the Democratic candidates to answer. But they should be made to do so. Democratic voters of all stripes would be able to make a clearer, better-informed choice regarding who should be the party’s standard-bearer in November of 2008.

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