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Friday, March 13, 2009 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | PREVIOUS: El Salvador Holds National Elections Amidst Renewed...
2009-03-13

Business, Labor Groups Clash Over Legislation to Ease Workers’ Barriers to Forming Unions

Guests

James Sherk, Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Stewart Acuff, Special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO.

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A fierce battle is brewing between labor unions and business groups over the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to form a union. If passed, the Employee Free Choice Act would amend the National Labor Relations Act to allow workers to form a union if a majority of them signed a card or petition. We host a debate between Stewart Acuff of the AFL-CIO and James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Labor unions and business groups have launched a fierce battle over proposed legislation that would rewrite the nation’s labor laws and make it easier for workers to form a union. If passed, the Employee Free Choice Act would amend the National Labor Relations Act to allow workers to form a union if a majority of them signed a card or a petition. Under current law, employers can force workers to hold a secret ballot election before recognizing a union. The bill also adds penalties for employers that discriminate against workers for their union-organizing activity and mandates that a government arbitrator will intervene if employers and workers cannot agree on a contract within 120 days.

Labor groups say the Employee Free Choice Act would help restore the freedom of workers to form unions and bargain collectively, while business groups argue that the bill would hurt profits and lead to more layoffs. Both sides have launched massive lobbying efforts.

AMY GOODMAN:

The bill was introduced in both houses of Congress Tuesday. Much of the attention is being focused on the Senate, where it remains unclear if Democrats have enough bipartisan support to survive a filibuster.

In a moment, we’ll host a debate between the AFL-CIO and the Heritage Foundation. But first I want to play two commercials about the Employee Free Choice Act. First one was produced by the pro-labor group American Rights at Work.

    AMERICAN RIGHTS AT WORK AD: Corporate greed, it’s caused a meltdown of our economy. Just look at the news or your retirement account. Now greedy CEOs want to prevent workers from joining unions to level the playing field. Their new scheme to keep wages low: spreading lies about the Employee Free Choice Act. The truth is the Employee Free Choice Act absolutely protects workers’ right to choose a secret ballot election. But the choice would be the workers’, not their boss’s. That’s the secret big business doesn’t want you to know.

AMY GOODMAN:

And this ad is from the pro-business group Employee Freedom Action Committee.

    EMPLOYEE FREEDOM ACTION COMMITTEE AD: Steel, auto, airlines — what do these industries all have in common? Hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and union bosses who helped to put them out of business. If you think the economy is bad now, it could get worse. Union bosses are pushing their own bailout bill in Congress that could force employees to pay union dues against their will. Economists say it will cost jobs and damage the economy. Fight the Employee Forced Choice Act at employeefreedom.org.

AMY GOODMAN:

We’re joined now by two guests in Washington. Stewart Acuff is the special assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO. James Sherk is the Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Let’s begin with James Sherk. Why are you opposed to this bill?

JAMES SHERK:

Because this is a bill that takes away employees’ choice. Read the text of the bill. There’s nothing in there about workers having a choice between a secret ballot or simply being forced to sign publicly. Workers have, if this is passed, no ability to call for a secret ballot election. That hand — that would be entirely in the control of union organizers. And they’ve made it clear in their public statements that they have no intention of doing that.

And on top of that — the secret ballot part is outrageous, and it’s gotten most of the attention, but after that happened, at newly organized companies, you’d have the government imposing contracts, the government writing contracts that workers and business would have to live with. They couldn’t appeal. Workers wouldn’t have the right to vote or strike. And government bureaucrats don’t have the expertise to run a company, in even the best economic times. But in times like this, where it’s hard enough for businesses and workers with every incentive to keep the company going, to stay afloat, to be stuck with a contract that a government bureaucrat who knew nothing about the business to impose, you’d see thousands of businesses going under and tens of thousands of workers losing their job. Government control is not the way to get businesses back on track.

AMY GOODMAN:

Stewart Acuff of the AFL-CIO?

STEWART ACUFF:

Thank you, Amy. It’s good to be with you and Juan.

Let me start by saying we’ve had thirty years of failed trickle-down economics brought to you by the Heritage Foundation and James’s associates there. It’s hard for me to believe he can speak with a straight face, seeing what thirty years of free market fundamentalism has done to us.

The Employee Free Choice Act is very important, because those thirty years have led to flat wages and declining wages. The average wage of the average worker in America today is lower than it was in 1973, because of the corporate and right-wing assault on labor unions and workers. So the Employee Free Choice Act simply will restore in the private sector the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively. Workers will still be able to seek and get a secret ballot election, if they want, to simply by 30 percent or 40 or 45 percent of the workers in the workplace signing a card and/or a petition and going down to the National Labor Relations Board and asking for an election, and election will be granted, or signing 50 percent plus one and going down and applying for certification, and certification will be granted. Both methods have been legal since 1935. It’s just that today, the employer decides which method is used. We want to change it for the worker to decide.

And the problem is, in that six-week period between when workers apply for an election and get an election, employers routinely — it’s now a routine part of a corrupt corporate culture — run campaigns of terror, intimidation, firings, retaliation against workers who support the union. Last year, 31,000 workers, according to the National Labor Relations Board, were retaliated against for legally protected union activity. And so, folks like James make up a problem to cover a real problem. There is no union intimidation. There’s only been forty-two cases in the history of the Board — that’s seventy-four years — while last year 31,000 workers were intimidated by their employer for legally protected union activity.

On the arbitration —-

JAMES SHERK: That’s -—

STEWART ACUFF: I’m sorry, Amy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: No, go ahead. Finish your point.

STEWART ACUFF: On the arbitration, if workers and their employer are making steps and progress towards a first contract, they can mutually agree to extend the time period from the current 120 days under the bill for as long as it takes to get a contract. The aim here is not to arbitrate contracts, but it’s to give employers and corporations a real incentive to reach a first contract. One company, the largest company in cable television, Comcast Cable, routinely awards their non-union workers higher wages than their union workers, as a policy. And so, we’ve got to stop this business where workers can wait twelve years to get a first contract, six years to get a first contract, after they form their union. And we do need to impose real penalties on employers who violate the law. I don’t know of another federal law where there is not real penalties for employers who violate the law, and that’s why the Employee Free Choice Act would provide real penalties for employers who violate the law. This —

JAMES SHERK:

Now, if I can step in for a moment...

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Well, yeah, if we can hear James Sherk in a second. But I’d like you, Mr. Sherk, especially in response to this issue of the number of workers that are routinely fired when they do engage in unionization activities and what kind — the responsibility of government to do something about that.

JAMES SHERK:

Look, workers have an absolute right to join a union if they want to. They also have a right not to join a union. If intimidation is a problem, why would we get rid of secret ballot elections? It’s the secret ballot that protects workers from intimidation.

Now, with regard to the numbers he put out, they’re simply not true. That 31,000 figure is — the National Labor Relations Board tracks the number of workers who get back pay each year. Back pay is typically awarded when an employer makes a change to your working environment, say he cuts your hours, but he has to negotiate first. So the Board comes in and says, “No, no, no, you can’t change the working environment before the workers have been — before you’ve negotiated with it. Pay them what they would have got otherwise.” The figure has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with workers being fired each year.

American Rights at Work, the pro-union organization that’s lobbying for this bill, put out a report, and if you actually read the numbers in their report, they find that there’s any employer misconduct in only seven percent of elections. 93 percent of elections, there’s no — no meritorious charges of employer misconduct.

But again, if intimidation is a problem, it’s the secret ballot that ensures that a worker can say, “Oh, yes, boss, yes, I’m absolutely going to vote against the union,” and then in the privacy of the voting booth vote the other way, or, when the union officials are at their home late at night, can say, “Oh, yeah, of course. Of course I want the Teamsters representing me. I’m going to vote for the union,” and then in the privacy of the voting booth vote the other way. Workers should have the right to make their choice in privacy. And the problem with this law — read the law. Read if there’s anything in the law that talks about workers having a choice. The law simply says the National Labor Relations Board shall not direct an election once the union organizers have collected cards from 50 percent of employees. Workers would have no choice.

And then, with the government stepping in, no government bureaucrat is in a position to run your company, to run your job, to tell you what your wages should be, what your benefits should be, what your work assignments should be, what promotion opportunities you should have, what equipment your company should use to do the job. They’re unaccountable. They don’t know. They’re just being parachuted in there. Government planning is not a recipe for economic health.

Workers have leverage in the current system. They can do work slowdowns. They can go on strike. If the employer is refusing to enter into a contract, the system gives workers pretty significant leverage they can use to force them to the bargaining table. Companies don’t sign these contracts out of the goodness of their heart.

STEWART ACUFF:

This kind of deregulatory nonsense has led —

JUAN GONZALEZ: Stewart Acuff.

STEWART ACUFF:

This kind of deregulatory nonsense and falsehoods has led to thirty years of flat and declining wages, 47 million of us in America without healthcare, 20 percent more people in poverty today than when George Bush took office, and CEO pay that in 1980 was forty times as much as the average worker, today is 400 times as much as the average worker — more inequality in the US than we’ve had since the 1920s, the greatest inequality in the world. This is all deregulatory nonsense.

We need to protect workers who try to form a union, so they can get healthcare for their kids or so they can get a pension or so they can get dignity and respect on the job. And James is just not being truthful. The Center for Economic Policy and Research came out with a study last week that says in 26 percent of all organizing campaigns, worker union leaders are fired. In study after study, we find 90 percent of the time employers hire anti-union consultants and attorneys — that’s now a $4 billion a year industry to frustrate the will of the workers; 75 percent of the time they put workers through one-on-one supervisory sweat sessions; 50 percent of the time they threaten to close the workplace; and now 26 percent of the time they fire worker union leaders. One-third of all the workers who form a union never get a first contract.

The system is broken. It’s geared for the employer. There is an imbalance of power, an inherent imbalance of power in the workplace. And if we’re going to lift this economy out of this crisis, caused by the same kind of deregulatory nonsense that James is saying this morning, we need to lift it from the bottom by putting more money into the pockets and hands of workers to spend in this economy, and that is by allowing them to bargain collectively with their employer.

AMY GOODMAN:

Stewart Acuff?

JAMES SHERK:

How does getting rid of secret ballots do that?

STEWART ACUFF:

It is no —

JAMES SHERK:

Getting rid of secret ballots doesn’t do that.

STEWART ACUFF:

It is no accident that the middle class in this country, the broad, deep, strong middle class in this country that has been the strength of this economy, was created when workers got the freedom to form unions by either signing cards or going to an election between 1935 and 1955, when 12 million workers formed unions, and we created the modern American middle class and the American dream. But the middle class —

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Stewart Acuff, let me interrupt you for one second here —

STEWART ACUFF:

Sure.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

—- because I’d like to get to the practicalities of how this is going to -— this fight is going to go on in Congress. One of the things that I have heard, because you’ve got three main parts of this bill, which is the card check, the higher fines for retaliation against workers, and also the 120-day arbitration period. I’ve been told that some union leaders would be willing to compromise on the 120-day for a new contract in order to get the rest of the bill through. Is that a debate that’s going on within the labor movement right now?

STEWART ACUFF:

No, that’s not an open debate, Juan. I can’t say that nobody has said that. We expect to pass this bill as it is written. We have the votes to do so. We have the House leadership with us, the Senate leadership with us, and the White House strongly with us. So we expect it to pass as it is written.

AMY GOODMAN:

Steward Acuff, I also want to ask how this will affect Wal-Mart. The CEO of Wal-Mart, Lee Scott, talked about this at a meeting. He said, “We like driving the car; we’re not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us.” They’re one of the few companies in this time of dire economic stress that is reporting profits.

STEWART ACUFF:

Well, it will give Wal-Mart workers an opportunity to bargain for higher wages, to bargain for healthcare, and to bargain for a better way of life. Let me tell you, it’s no accident that the biggest chunk of users of Medicaid in America are Wal-Mart employees. So Wal-Mart has made a lot of money by cheating their workers, forcing people to work off the clock, stopping unions, by low-balling their suppliers, and by cheating taxpayers, by forcing the rest of us to pay for their medical care for their workers. So Wal-Mart will, under this bill —

AMY GOODMAN:

Let me give James Sherk here the last word. Your response?

JAMES SHERK:

It’s not going to help any business to have the government come in, to have a bureaucrat parachuted in and simply impose a business plan on the company.

STEWART ACUFF:

It’ll help workers, though, James.

JAMES SHERK:

It wouldn’t help workers —

STEWART ACUFF:

It will.

JAMES SHERK:

— if you’ve got the government driving your company into bankruptcy, if you don’t have a job because a bureaucrat imposed a contract the company couldn’t change for two years and the company goes out of business. Government planning, the idea of government planning, it went down with the Berlin Wall. We’ve seen that it doesn’t work.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. James Sherk with the Heritage Foundation. Stewart Acuff with the AFL-CIO.

STEWART ACUFF:

Thanks, Amy. Thanks, Juan.

JAMES SHERK:

Thank you.

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