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Why the Employee Free Choice Act is Good for the Black Community

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By Yvonne Wheeler -- 

The freedom to form and join unions is a fundamental right protected by our constitutional freedom of association, our nation’s labor laws, and international human rights laws, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a right for which millions of Americans have struggled. The freedom to form unions is of special importance to the civil and women’s rights movements because unions help ensure adequate wages, health care coverage and retirement security.  It was the right to form a union that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was supporting during the Memphis sanitation strike when he was assassinated on April 4. 1968. Unions also help to reduce the wage gap for women and people of color, and can prevent arbitrary and discriminatory employer behavior.

As community leaders and activists we ask for your support of the “Employee Free Choice Act.” This legislation provides for recognition of a union when the majority of employees voluntarily sign authorization cards, guarantees a first contract through mediation and arbitration, and establishes meaningful penalties for corporations who violate their workers’ right to organize.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 has long allowed employers to recognize a union when the majority of workers sign authorization cards, designating the union as

their bargaining agent. The right to form a union, however, has been eroded over the last several decades, and today, corporations frequently harass, intimidate, and even terminate

workers who try to form a union. Ninety-two percent of employers illegally force employees to attend mandatory, closed-door meetings against the union.

Twenty-five percent of private-sector employers illegally fire at least one worker for union activity during organizing campaigns. Even where workers successfully form unions, employers often refuse to bargain fairly with workers. These attacks on workers’ rights, for which there are only weak – if any – penalties, occur all too frequently among the most vulnerable workers of our society, including women, the working poor of all races, and recent immigrants.  As a result, those workers who need unions the most are often those who have the least chance of achieving the benefits of unionization.  The Employee Free Choice Act will make sure that workers can exercise their rights so that they are able to obtain the benefits of unionization, free from the fear of intimidation or termination.

If you feel like it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to make ends meet, well, that’s because it is.  Although productivity has grown at a historically rapid pace over the last six years, the wages and compensation of the typical worker—even for those with a college degree—have not improved in several years.  Couple this with skyrocketing health care costs and mounting personal debt and we end up with a middleclass mess. Some folks, however, are doing just fine. A recent analysis of IRS data found that the top 300,000 earners in America now make as much for their labors as the entire bottom 150 million of their fellow citizens combined.

To put it bluntly, while the have and have-mores of this country are making out like bandits, workingclass people have been getting a shrinking piece of the economic pie.  And for African-American families, that slice is even smaller.

The facts speak for themselves:

African American family income is still only 60 percent that of the average family in America. African American workers are also less likely than whites to have employer-provided health insurance and pension plans. According to the Department of Labor, only 44% of African American male workers have any pension coverage at all, compared with 58% of white men.

For decades, unions have helped women and people of Color Bridge the wage gap and get ahead.

Through the power of collective bargaining, union workers have been able to negotiate better pay, win access to health insurance and other benefits for themselves and their families. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, African American workers who belong to unions earn 36 percent more than their nonunion counterparts and are more likely to have employer-provided health coverage and pensions.

Unfortunately, union representation has declined for the country as a whole and unionization rates for African-Americans have fallen more quickly than for the rest of the workforce.  Part of the reason for the decline in unionization rates among African-Americans is undoubtedly related to the decline of U.S. manufacturing, where people of color have been able to get good union jobs. The overall decline in manufacturing, however, is only part of the problem.

Most people in America don’t know that labor law in this country has been so twisted that it is now virtually impossible for workers to form a union without running the risk of employer harassment and even termination. Seventy years of labor law amendments, court decisions and a ballooning multi-million dollar union-busting industry have effectively robbed workers of their constitutional and human right to choose whether to form a union to bargain for improved working conditions.  What do employers do?

According to Cornell Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner, seventy-eight percent force supervisors to meet oneon-one with the people they supervise, and urge them to vote “no.” In over half of worker campaigns, employers threaten that the workplace will close if workers unionize.  And fourteen percent use electronic spying equipment on their workers.  Worse still, a new study by the independent Center for Economic Policy Research found that one out of five union activists is likely to be fired when they try to form unions.  The Employee Free Choice Act would give working people back their freedom to form and join unions by stiffening penalties on employers that violate the law.  And the bill restores balance to the system of forming unions and bargaining by giving workers, not bosses, the option of deciding how they will choose whether to form a union – either through ballot elections or majority sign-up, a process that enables people to form unions when a majority of employees indicate in writing they want one.

Better wages and benefits for the African American community as well as communities of color, with secure employment, has clear immediate and long range benefits for these communities. This increased economic activity provides an opportunity for small and neighborhood businesses—a catalyst for economic development focused on consumer goods and personal services.

The key to economic growth and stability in our communities is a strong and secure wage and earnings base for workers. Retail sales, consumer services and personal services are all strengthened by a strong community economy.

For the sake of all workers struggling to gain a toehold into the middle class, we need your help in getting this legislation passed.

This legislation will be debated and voted on prior to Memorial Day and every California Democrat in the House of Representatives has signed on as Co-sponsors with the exception of Senator Dianne Feinstein and we thank them for standing with working families.  But for this Bill to become law we need the support of Senator Dianne Feinstein—so we ask you to call Senator Dianne Feinstein @ 1-866-207-2060 and ask her to support and co-sponsor the Employee Free Choice Act.

Yvonne Wheeler is a Senior Field Representative with the National AFL-CIO.

 

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