The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 11, 2009

Employees, not companies, should decide about unions


Many Pennsylvanians are aware that Sen. Arlen Specter may hold a key vote on the Employee Free Choice Act later this year. I believe that Specter should support this bill and bring some long-needed economic relief to struggling American workers, along with a return to common sense and justice in the workplace.

Let’s begin with a simple truth that everyone should be able to agree with: That the question of whether or not workers belong to a union is a decision solely for the workers to make. The company should not have a vote, nor should the Chamber of Commerce, nor the union-busting consultants who have sprung up like weeds.

It is common for workers seeking to organize to be threatened with plant closings, spied upon, threatened with discharge and, in fact, actually discharged just for supporting the idea of having a union. Twenty thousand American workers were discharged in 2007 for just that reason.

Many companies also tell their employees that they will never agree to any contract if a union wins representation rights.

All of this is illegal, of course, yet it happens routinely because the penalties are so meaningless as to be non-existent. At worst, a company will have to post a notice that it won’t do it again. And if you are fired illegally, as happens in 25 percent of all drives, you will have to wait, on average, about seven years for a decision that may reinstate you to your job, and even then only maybe with back pay.

What does the Employee Free Choice Act do to improve this situation? First, it increases penalties so that fines paid for violations of the law become more than just another cost of doing business. Break the law and you suffer serious consequences.

Workers have to obey the law. So should the boss.

Second, the bill sets up a procedure for contract mediation or arbitration for first agreements only. This is to combat those employers who refuse to bargain in good faith and try to avoid any agreement with their employees.

Finally, the Employee Free Choice Act returns the decision about whether to unionize or how to unionize to the employees. It does not eliminate secret ballots. Workers can ask for majority recognition, (an option that has existed since 1935) a secret ballot election, or no union at all.

People talk about intimidation in union elections – they’re right. It’s happening every day in workplaces from coast to coast. Only the ones making threats and doing the intimidating are the bosses, not the workers and not the unions trying to organize workplaces.

A check of U.S. Department of Labor records showed the following:

* Since 1935, there have been 42 documented cases of union fraud or coersion involving the signing of authorization cards.

* By contrast, there were 6,000 instances of employers intimidating employees to vote against the union in 1969.

* By 1990, that number had risen to 20,000.

* By 2007, there were nearly 30,000 cases of illegal firings and other discrimination against employees who were attempting to exercise their federally protected labor law rights.

Yes, intimidation is a big problem. But it is the anti-union crowd who are guilty.

Recent polls have shown that a majority of American workers understand that having a union means better wages and benefits and would join if they could. Organized labor doesn’t have to intimidate anyone for them to want to join a union.

We simply want to insure that the tens of millions of Americans who want to belong to a union are able to join, free of threats and intimidation from their employer or the union-busting, law-breaking consultants they employ.

It’s time to end the deception about this bill and pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Specter needs to vote yes.

Daniel J. Kane is international secretary-treasurer of the United Mine Workers of America.