The Employee Free Choice Act Explained

By Dan Duncan, Chair Northern Virginia Central Labor Council & FCDC Member, Braddock District

The Employee Free Choice Act pending before Congress is the latest effort to modify the nation’s labor laws to help workers since the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act) of 1935.

When that New Deal-era legislation passed, workers had no protection from employers who wanted to keep them from organizing for better pay, working conditions and benefits. The Wagner Act created the National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw the implementation of the new laws regarding organizing.

After Republicans gained control of the Congress following World War II, they began the process of weakening the Wagner Act. In 1947, over the veto of President Truman, it passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed workers from having workplaces that would be 100% union. This was the foundation for right-to-work laws, such as Virginia’s,  which allow employees in a workplace covered by a union contract to gain the benefits of higher pay, safer workplaces and decent benefits without having to pay for them. The 1959 Landrum-Griffith Act further restricted union organizing efforts. On top of that, Big Business interests received more support in 1981 when President Reagan said it was fine to fire workers for striking and to replace them with lower-paid, less-experienced scabs in the wake of the PATCO walkout.

The hokum being stirred by the massive multi-million dollar campaign funded by Big Business and the Chambers of Commerce that federal labor law will be tossed on its head should the Employee Free Choice Act pass is pure garbage. The Act is an effort swing the pendulum toward balancing the power structure currently controlled by business.

The Employee Free Choice Act calls for three distinct measures to modify labor law:

1)      The National Labor Relations Board can certify a group of workers to create a union local if it determines a majority of workers in a unit have signed authorizations seeking a union to be their representative. (This would allow the workers, rather than the present system of the employer, to choose if a secret ballot or if the majority of workers’ signatures on union pledge cards would be used. It does not eliminate secret ballot at all.)

2)      End frequently used corporate delaying tactics by setting up a structure to allow the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to assist in bringing the sides together with a further step calling for binding arbitration as a last effort. (Under the current system, an employer can stall a bargaining session for a year, then demand a new vote on organizing be taken when workers are fed up with the lack of progress.)

3)      The National Labor Relations Board could seek a federal injunction against an employer who has discharged or discriminated against workers or engaged in action that interferes with employee rights to organize or negotiate a first contract. (The Board already has the right to seek an injunction against unions whenever there is reasonable cause to believe they have violated secondary boycott prohibitions.)

In the last Congress, the House – with bipartisan support – approved the Employee Free Choice Act. A bipartisan majority in the Senate stated they were in favor but a Republican filibuster kept the measure from being considered. In the current Congress even more are in favor because they see the Employee Free Choice Act will provide some balance in the worker-employer relation.

As for the argument that America cannot afford allowing workers a chance to improve themselves in these harsh economic times, one only needs to study history. The Wagner Act passed during the Great Depression. Unions began massive organizing campaigns that created Social Security, health benefits, overtime regulations, workplace safety, secured pensions – the basic foundations for our great middle class.

As the Wagner Act was whittled away, so have these protections for workers. It is no coincidence that the rich have gotten richer while the workers have struggled to maintain their jobs and pay during the last eight years. American workers actually are MORE productive now than they were 10 years ago. Because unions have been weakened, so has the American middle class. Workers have known about the recession for years. All we want is a chance to provide some balance in the system and reclaim the American Dream of a better life for ourselves and our children.