Bonior: Labor’s Wish List Starts With EFCA

Posted May 14, 2009 at 2:06pm

An unprecedented public relations and legislative battle is currently taking place over the Employee Free Choice Act. In the process, the Beltway drama has spiraled out of control over the politics versus the substance of this debate. Pundits, lobbyists and lawmakers alike have obsessed over the latest polling conclusions, advertising dollars, Senate counting and who’s winning the Twitter and Google war. Yet average people like Zeldia Manning, a poultry worker from Arkansas who lost her job for her support of a union, don’t care about partisan politics — they care about having and keeping good jobs so they can provide for their families and achieve the American Dream.

Last November, the public’s outcry for real change led to a shift in the country’s political landscape, giving us the opportunity to enact progressive policies and restore some balance for hardworking families. The Employee Free Choice Act is just one legislative initiative that workers are counting on in this tough economy. Despite support from a majority of lawmakers and 73 percent of the public, there are a number of political junkies speculating that the bill’s days are numbered.

It would be a wasted opportunity for our lawmakers to lose sight of meaningful labor law reform and give up on working men and women who are depending on them for it. Giving America’s workers a fair and direct path to join unions, toughening penalties on employers who violate the law, and helping workers secure a contract in a reasonable period of time should be a priority for Members of Congress in both parties. The Employee Free Choice Act is a vehicle to bring about those needed changes. So throughout its debate, it is imperative to remember who and what we are really fighting for — the right for workers to have a voice in their workplaces so we can turn this economy around and make it work for everyone again.

Many of the same big-business groups who got us into this economic mess remain steadfast in their opposition to workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively. They are steadfast in their attacks on the Employee Free Choice Act, claiming unions are bad for business and the economy. Unfortunately for them, history suggests otherwise.

The largest increase of union membership occurred in the three decades following World War II. With growing numbers of workers represented by unions, our economy flourished from increased productivity and shared prosperity. Good-paying union jobs helped parents buy homes, send their kids to college and save for retirement. Just like then, unions still provide a direct path to the middle class for those willing to work hard, while serving as a check to the kind of unrestrained corporate power that created the financial meltdown we’re in today.

The debate on this bill isn’t rhetorical for California journalist Sara Steffens. Watching as other newspapers were struggling to stay in business, Steffens and her colleagues at the Contra Costa Times simply wanted a union to work with management to improve the newspaper’s viability. Yet two weeks after their successful union vote, in a clear attempt to retaliate against union activists, Steffens and 28 of her co-workers were laid off. If we had measures like the Employee Free Choice Act in place, along with its provisions toughening penalties on employers who use illegal tactics, Steffens could still have her job.

We need to also seize this opportunity to enact other critical reforms that affect workers, their families and our country as a whole. Workers need health and safety measures brought up to the 21st century, period. The Protecting America’s Workers Act does just that, expanding coverage to millions of workers currently not covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, strengthening health and safety violation penalties and improving whistle-blower protections. It deserves broad support.

We cannot let Congress predictably head toward a stalemate over health care reform in the months ahead. Expenses continue to skyrocket for workers and companies, and there is a large consensus that something must be done to overhaul our system that leaves millions uninsured and puts profit over care. The issue of paid sick leave, or lack thereof, should not be put aside, either. We need to stop making workers choose between seeking medical attention or recovering from an illness and earning enough income to make ends meet.

We should never forget workers like Zeldia Manning and Sara Steffens — they clearly illustrate a need for real reform of our labor laws. While their experiences often get lost in the back-and-forth wrangling over legislation like the Employee Free Choice Act, we simply cannot give up on them. If we do, the future of our country, those who make it work every day, and the great middle class are undoubtedly in jeopardy.

Ex-Rep. David Bonior (Mich.) is the chairman of American Rights at Work and a former House Democratic Whip.