Employee Free Choice Act a possibility in Obama administration

12/17/08 Seán Kinane
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With a Democratic president and large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, labor organizers are optimistic that pro-union legislation can win passage in 2009. At the top of the wish list is the Employee Free Choice Act. Over the last 20 years, an imbalance has been created between employers and employees, according to Rich Templin, communications director with the Florida AFL-CIO, a labor union that supports the Employee Free Choice Act.

“What the Employee Free Choice Act does is it restores that balance. … We’re going to mandate that if in fact a union is created at a workplace, that the employer has to sit down within a set time period and bargain in good faith that first contract.”

The Employee Free Choice Act is also being called the “card-check” bill because it allows a workforce to unionize if a majority of workers signs cards to join the union. A new Florida-based coalition called Floridians for a Democratic Workplace held a conference call on Wednesday explaining why they oppose the Act.

Doug Wheeler is vice president of advocacy with the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, we have concerns about freedoms that the employees will loose under this initiative. Obviously, the fundamental key there is the right to a secret ballot election. … The right of an employee to be informed, to hear both sides, both management and union sides. … And employers as well will lose certain freedoms … the right to communicate fairly with their employees about the pros or cons associated with union representation.”

But, according to the AFL-CIO’s Templin, the right of employers to communicate their messages to employees will never be in jeopardy.

“Employees hear the management side every single day that they’re on the job. Management controls their work experience. … There’s no way that their ‘side,’ quote-unquote, is going to be taken away. They have the opportunity to communicate with workers all the time.”

Barbara Comstock is the national spokesperson for the Workforce Fairness Institute. Comstock is concerned that the Employee Free Choice Act would change 70 years of labor law and the card-check provision would eliminate supervised secret ballot elections.

“This legislation simply gives too much power to government bureaucrats to dictate the wages, benefits, and working conditions. And more important than anything, it takes away an employee’s fundamental right to have that secret ballot election when deciding something about their job that can fundamentally change their workplace.”

Because the bill has not yet been introduced, its details are not certain. The card-check provision may require a simple majority of workers, 50 percent plus one, to sign up or, according to the AFL-CIO’s Templin, it may require a supermajority of 60 percent. But he is cynical about why opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act are so concerned about a secret ballot election to unionize.

“I’m really glad that after 20 years of firing workers, intimidating workers … I’m glad that the employers are really worried about the democratic rights of their workers – I mean that’s refreshing. That aside, all the card check provision of the Employee Free Choice Act does is put into law something that’s already accepted current practice.”

Union organizing currently happens in two stages, Templin said: Cards are collected to demonstrate that employees are interested in forming a union and then an election is held. But employers have not been not good actors in elections, according to Templin.

Sally House is director of governmental affairs with the Florida Retail Federation. The Employee Free Choice Act would impact retailers because unionization would lead to increased wages, House warned.

“A lot of people call this is called Walmart bill because they are the ones who are being targeted: Walmart, Target, Publix are the ones being targeted by the unions because they’re the ones that are easy to get to. … Because of unions, wages tend to get artificially inflated. And anytime you have that type of wage inflation, retailers start to lose their competitive edge and have to increase prices.”

Templin said that premise is flawed; higher wages are a good thing, not something to be concerned about.

“It’s not that wages are not artificially inflated, that’s preposterous. What will happen is that people will be able to bargain with their employer for decent wages, for safe working conditions … As union membership goes up, so does the living standard of everyone in that community. And that’s what we expect to happen.”

Another critic of the proposed legislation is Peter Dyga, vice president of government affairs with the East Coast Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida. Dyga called the Employee Free Choice Act “onerous,” and said it would increase costs by an average of 20 percent.

“One having to do with the loss of, or I guess forced arbitrations, if you will, and also significant increases in penalties, $20,000 per violation.”

The U.S. Congress could take up the Employee Free Choice Act early in the term of the new president.

Employee Free Choice Act

Floridians for a Democratic Workplace

Florida AFL-CIO

Previous WMNF coverage of Employee Free Choice Act

Florida Chamber of Commerce

Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida

Florida Retail Federation

Workforce Fairness Institute

Previous coverage on EFCA by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, FAIR, on CounterSpin

Coalition for a Democratic Workplace

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