Workers' Rights Campaign
Stand Up For Workers' Rights
An Economy in Crisis
Our economy is obviously in crisis. From rising unemployment and crippled financial markets to a housing crisis that forces a family from its home through foreclosure every 13 seconds , nearly every American is affected.
Although we’ve been hit with exceptional force since the fall of 2008, these problems did not occur overnight. They were the result of decades of irresponsibility and misplaced priorities on the part of our national leadership.
The same policies that have led to our current acute crisis have also contributed to a different, but related, problem: over the last several decades we’ve seen rising economic inequality in the United States and the weakening of the middle class.
The super-rich have gotten steadily richer in comparison to average households since the 1960s. In 1962, the richest one percent had 125 times the wealth of the typical American household. By 2004, that figure had increased to 190 times.  The richest one percent now owns 34.3% of the nation’s private wealth—more than the combined wealth of the bottom 90%. 
This same trend of rising inequality holds true when measured in income (vs. wealth). Between 1949 and 1979, the average wage for an hourly production worker rose 75%, adjusted for inflation  and income for the bottom 20% earners more than doubled—a bigger increase than at the top. 
But, since then we’ve seen a sharp reversal. Between 1979 and 2006, hourly production worker wages increased only 2%.  In this same period, the top 5% of earners saw their incomes increase 87%, and the top 20% saw a 57% income hike. The bottom 20% saw zero income growth.
Between 1979 and 2004, American workers increased their productivity by 64%, but received only a 12% boost to their median hourly compensation.  This means that workers aren’t receiving their fair share of prosperity.
The Bush tax cuts made matters worse. Families in the top 0.1% of income received a $200,523 tax cut. Those in the bottom 20% got $23.  And, changes in the after-tax income at the top levels have been even more extreme than the numbers reported above—more than tripling between 1979 and 2005 for the top 5%. 
The result has been greater wealth disparity and a weaker middle class. This, in turn, has exacerbated the current economic crisis. Flat incomes for average Americans drove them into more debt as the cost of housing and other essentials rose. At the same time, rising wealth at the top contributed to rampant speculation on stocks, real estate, and new financial instruments like “mortgage-backed securities,” and the inflated financial bubble. 
Economic inequality isn’t the only problem for American workers. Employees also face unsafe working conditions resulting in serious injuries, lack of job security, and insufficient protections for whistle-blowers who bring to light serious wrongdoing by their employers. These problems are all exacerbated in today’s difficult economic climate. The high unemployment rate makes workers not protected by a contract more reluctant to stand up for their rights.
Declining Union Membership
An important reason for nation’s wealth being concentrated at the top and the vulnerability of American workers has been a decline in the number of working Americans represented by a labor union.  In 2008, 12.4% of American workers were part of a union, down from 20.1% in 1983 (the first year with comparable data).  Just 7.6% of private sector workers are in a union. 
This decline in numbers has meant a corresponding decline in the power of working families in society. Numerous studies have documented the benefits of unions, both to represented workers, and to society as a whole. Unions raise wages for their members 20% and total compensation by 28%.  Union members receive more generous health benefits, more vacation and paid leave, and better pension plans. 
But, the benefits of unions aren’t restricted to members. Unions have played a critical role in securing worker-protection laws that apply across the board. And, an Economic Policy Institute study concluded that “the impact of unions on total nonunion wages is almost as large as the impact on total union wages. “ 
The bottom line is that average, working Americans have a stronger voice, and society is more fair and equal, when more workers are represented by labor unions. But, union representation is declining to a troubling degree.
Federal Laws that Hinder Collective Bargaining
There are two main reasons for the decline of union density in the workforce. The first, a decline in domestic manufacturing jobs, is largely beyond our control. The second reason, though, is a shift in labor law that has makes it more difficult for workers to organize themselves into unions.
The 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), or Wagner Act, established the basic right of workers to band together and bargain collectively with employers over wages, benefits, and working conditions. This Depression-era reform changed the workplace power dynamic, but its force has been blunted over the years. The current legal landscape the favors employers and turns union organizing into an uphill battle.
It starts with the initial drive to organize a union. The Wagner Act provided employees with a choice between organizing a union through a majority sign-up system, or a secret-ballot election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Either process could result in “certification” of the union by the NLRB.  In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act amended NLRA and specified that only an election would result in “certification” (which provides certain advantages to the union);  but an employer’s failure to recognize majority sign-up as evidence of union support was still considered an unfair labor practice, and the NLRB would issue a “bargaining order” requiring the employer to negotiate with the union. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that employers could refuse to recognize a union through the majority sign-up process and call for an election.  This means that today, the only way for workers to form a union in most places  is through an NLRB-supervised secret ballot election.
Secret ballots seem reasonable at first blush—but in fact, NLRB elections tend to be unfair to workers, even when conducted within the rules. Employers will often speak out strongly against the formation of a union, and have greater access to the workforce/electorate. They may hold mandatory anti-union meetings during the work day, post and distribute anti-union paraphernalia, predict negative consequences from unionization (as opposed to explicitly threatening such consequences), and even make false statements about unionization and issue veiled threats. 
Employees, on the other hand, may only talk about the union on breaks and in break areas and may be prevented from distributing pro-union literature and paraphernalia in the workplace (as part of a general policy against solicitation). Union organizers have no right to be in the workplace at all.
In addition, some employers will break the rules to thwart union organizing drives—and current law hardly discourages this behavior. If an employer illegally fires a worker, the worst that can happen to the employer is that it will be required to reinstate that employee with back pay. Given that firing outspoken workers is an extremely effective way to intimidate employees and bust union drives, that’s hardly a disincentive. In fact, many employers just consider it a cost of doing business.
Even when workers are able to beat the odds and organize a union, they often have trouble securing a first contract. Employers know that dragging out negotiations can undermine support for the union. Approximately 25% of unions do not reach a first contract within three years of winning an NLRB election.  About one third do not reach a contract after more than a year.  The only penalty for an employer not bargaining in good faith? A court order instructing the employer to bargain in good faith.
So, under current law, workers who wish to organize in a union often face significant propaganda campaigns, veiled threats, and illegal activity. Then, even if workers are able to win an election despite the uneven playing field, there’s no guarantee the employer will bargain for a first contract in good faith.
Our economy is suffering, and inequality is on the rise. Instead of shared prosperity, the U.S. is drifting towards a polarized society in which few have plenty and many see their standards of living stagnate or decline. The weakening of workers’ voices has played a significant role in this shift.
For the sake of fundamental fairness and long-term economic stability, the United States must move towards a system of shared prosperity. The fruits of economic growth must be distributed fairly—with workers, managers, and owners sharing benefits.
In addition, Americans who are willing to work hard should be able to make a living, family-supporting wage. Our system should reward hard work and genuine contributions to the economy over capital gains based on speculation rather than true investment.
Since we know that a strong voice for workers is the best means to economic justice, we must protect workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.
One solution to many of the economic problems we face is to give workers a stronger voice. The best way to do that is to make it easier for workers to band together effectively in unions and speak with a collective voice to management or in the public square.
The Employee Free Choice Act, pending in the U.S. Congress, would do this in three basic ways. First, the bill requires employers (and the NLRB) to recognize a union constituted through secret ballot election OR a majority sign-up process. Employees and union organizers may pursue either option. This increases the chances that a legitimate majority of workers who wish to form a union will be recognized.
Next, Employee Free Choice requires that employers enter binding arbitration with a new union if the parties are unable to agree on a contract within 120 days. The resulting agreement governs for two years. This is intended to provide the proper incentive for employers to negotiate first contracts in good faith.
Finally, the bill increases penalties against companies that break the law during organizing campaigns or first contract negotiations. Current law requires companies found to have illegally fired a worker during an organizing campaign to give that worker back pay from the date of firing minus the wages since earned from another job (and the worker has an affirmative obligation to seek other work). Employee Free Choice increases this to triple back pay; adds civil penalties of up to $20,000 per incident for willful violations; and provides injunctive relief for interference with employee rights. These increased penalties change the equation and provide real incentive for employers to act within the law.
The opposition to Employee Free Choice combines ideological conservatives and business interests. The pro-Employee Free Choice organization American Rights at Work has labeled this well-financed and coordinated effort the “The Anti-Union Network.”  It includes lots of industry front groups, along with the behind-the-scenes players that fund their work.
The most prominent voice in this Network recently has been the Center for Union Facts, founded in 2006 by corporate lobbyist Richard Berman. Berman has been involved with a number of anti-worker front groups started specifically to attack Employee Free Choice.  Despite his extensive connections to the alcohol, tobacco, and fast food industries and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he claims to support workers. The Center won’t reveal its funding sources, but Berman himself has received funding from Coca Cola, Tyson Foods, Wendy’s, Phillip Morris, and other large corporations. 
The Heritage Foundation, a lavishly funded conservative think tank with a $65 million annual budget,  pumps out a stream of anti-Employee Free Choice papers, reports, and memos. They do all they can to make it appear as though they are concerned with protecting workers (rather than corporate profits). For example, 2007 Heritage Foundation “Backgrounder” is titled “How the Employee Free Choice Act Takes Away Workers’ Rights.” 
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the leading anti-union lobbying group in Washington, DC. They are also the single largest lobbying organization in the nation’s capital—having spent more than $477 million on lobbying since 1998.  The Chamber and its allies spent millions on political ads trying to defeat Employee Free Choice supporters in 2008. And they lead a coalition of anti-worker business interests that has spent $30 million over the past few years to fight Employee Free Choice. 
Now, they are stepping up their anti-Employee Free Choice lobbying. They’ve sponsored a “Workforce Freedom Airlift” flying small business owners to DC to lobby against the bill;  initiated a “virtual march on Washington;”  and in April launched a $1 million ad campaign targeted at just a few swing senators. 
Text of the Employee Free Choice Act: Read the actual bill.
American Rights at Work: The leading labor coalition supporting Employee Free Choice.
SEIU: The fastest growing union, which is leading a campaign for Employee Free Choice and health care reform called Change that Works.
AFL-CIO: “America’s union movement” and prominent supporter of Employee Free Choice.
Free and Fair?: Report on how current labor law fails democratic election standards.
Prof. Kate Bronfenbrenner: The leading pro-worker researcher, and professor at Cornell University.
Economic Policy Institute: This progressive think tank produces a great report on the “state of working America.”
 See Dr. Paula Voos, How Unions Can Help Restore the Middle Class, Testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (March 10, 2009).
 Several studies have attributed a proportion of growing inequality to declining union membership. For a summary, see http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/briefingpapers_bp143/
Congressional Research Service, “Labor Union Recognition Procedures: Use of Secret Ballots and Check Cards,” April 2, 2007 at 14 [heretofore “CRS”].
 Linden Lumber Division, Summer & Co. v. NLRB, 419 U.S. 301 (1974). The dissent (authored by Justice Stewart and joined by Justice Thurgood Marshall) argues convincingly that the clear intent of Congress was not to limit the options of a union for demonstrating majority support to an NLRB election.
 13 states have laws requiring recognition of majority sign up; and several employers have chosen to recognize majority sign-ups voluntarily (SEIU, “Main Message Points on Employee Free Choice”).
 An employer may not say that wearing a union button disqualifies an employee for promotion; but may say that wearing such a button is tantamount to a declaration of disloyalty.
 CRS at 10.
 Kate Bronfenbrenner, "Uneasy Terrain: The Impact of Capital Mobility on Workers, Wages and Union Organizing," U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission, 2000.
 James Sherk and Paul Kersey, “How the Employee Free Choice Act Takes Away Workers’ Rights,” Heritage Foundation, June 20, 2007.