Response to Democratizing the Demand for Workers’ Rights

Response to Democratizing the Demand for Workers’ Rights

As Joseph McCartin correctly notes, the year 2003 marked the launch of the most significant legislative campaign in a quarter century to protect the fundamental human right of America’s workers to form unions and bargain collectively, without employer interference. The vehicle for this campaign is the Employee Free Choice Act, which, in the 108th Congress, attracted 208 House co-sponsors and 37 in the Senate by late fall of 2004.

The Employee Free Choice Act is urgently needed because the freedom of America’s workers to form unions is in tatters, particularly in the private sector. Workers who are aggrieved by this denial of rights have virtually no legal protection. According to Richard Freeman, “the National Labor Relations Act . . . has institutionalized a process that effectively gives management near veto power over whether or not workers become organized.”

Research by Kate Bronfenbrenner, John Logan, and others underscores the intensity of employer campaigns to persuade or coerce workers to vote against forming a union. Bronfenbrenner found that the frequency of several key employer tactics intended to suppress formation of unions—captive audience meetings, anti-union leaflets, anti-union letters sent by employers to employees’ homes, and employer threats that the workplace would move or close if the employees voted to form a union—all increased dramatically between the mid 1980s and the late 1990s.

How many more workers would form unions if they were free to do so? No one knows, but the number is huge. According to a Peter Hart poll taken for the AFL-CIO, 47 percent of non-union workers want a union in their workplace. According to Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers, forty-two million non-union workers want a union.

What’s at stake? Family-supporting wages, access to health care, and retirement income security hang in the balance—for all workers, not just for union members. In the wake of the effective disappearance of legal protection for workers’ freedom to form unions, the last thirty years have been a time of stagnation of real wages—despite a two-thirds increase in productivity—and an increase of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth to levels not seen since the days of the robber barons. Without strong protection of their freedom to form unions, workers can forget about sustained economic progress and security, democracy in the workplace, or justice on the job.

The noxious consequences of failing to protect the freedom to form unions extend far beyond the workplace. Society’s safety net is weaker, political participation suffers, and democracy itself is threatened. Absent the stronger labor movement that would exist if workers were truly free to form unions, there is no other private institution capable of restraining unbridled, amoral, anti-social corporate power.

The Employee Free Choice Act’s three main provisions are democratic majority veri...


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels