Labor's Voice for Change (January 6, 2009)

Will Passage of ‘Employee Free Choice’
Cause Millions to Rush to Join Unions?

By Harry Kelber

After nearly five years of failing to get Congress to approve the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the leadership of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win hope to reach their goal early in 2009, mainly because President-elect Barack Obama and a majority in both houses of Congress are pledged to vote for it That’s the least they can do for the unions that spent $300 million to help getting them elected, not counting the tens of thousands of volunteers who worked in their behalf. While it is not absolutely certain that EFCA will be approved by this session of Congress, we should all rejoice if it did.

But if EFCA becomes a law, what happens next? How do we take advantage of the new law that would — or should — make recruiting new members into unions a lot easier? There is no evidence that the AFL-CIO or the CtW has a broad-scale organizing plan, except to repeat studies that show some 50 million unorganized workers would like to join a union.

Labor hasn’t trained a sufficient number of first-rate organizers to undertake the kind of mass recruiting campaigns that may be difficult, despite an EFCA law. Are we so naive to believe that all an organizer needs is a pen and a stack of authorization cards, as he or she stands before a long line of workers waiting impatiently to sign up? Do we imagine that major anti-union corporations will stop intimidating their workers to disown their pro-union loyalties — and not fire them if they don’t?

Labor leaders and their organizers still cling to their strongest argument: that union members earn a lot more than non-union members, and that this is true whether the worker is from a racial or ethnic minority, a woman or a young worker. But organizers should tell their intended recruits that they won’t get that higher pay scale until they and their co-workers convince their employer to sign a contract. And that there’s considerable risk, and no guarantee of success.

In today’s economy, where workers are suffering mass layoffs and wage cuts, the “union advantage” is not a strong selling point for an organizer. Most workers see a decline in their living standards and an uncertain future. They wonder what unions can do for them.

Have unions outlived their usefulness, as many pundits predict? On the contrary, they are needed more than ever. They have consistently fought to improve the lives of working families: free public schools, women suffrage, civil rights, minimum wage, Social Security, the 40-hour week, health and safety and other pro-labor measures. The need for unions will never end, as long as there are capitalists able and committed to exploiting workers for their own greed.

A number of unions halted their organizing campaigns, waiting for EFCA to become law. Many unions say that it’s all but impossible to organize during a recession. History has proven them wrong. During the Great Depression, several million workers, including women and minorities were organized into unions. (I was there. I saw it happen. I participated in the organizing campaigns.)

The AFL-CIO will hold its quadrennial convention on Sept, 14-17, 2009 in Pittsburgh. The current national leadership has been an abysmal failure in the 12 years it has held office. Unions are making concessions rather than winning better contracts. While hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs, their homes and a part of their retirement income, our labor leaders sit on the sidelines, offering no plan to ease the suffering of working families.

While union membership continues to decline, the AFL-CIO has virtually stopped new organizing projects. Our leaders command no influence or respect in Washington. And they have shown little interest in changing that image.

At the 2009 convention, we must elect a new team of leaders that has the ability to inspire the average member to become involved in rebuilding a bigger and stronger labor movement. We can no longer accept the status quo. The time for change is NOW!

“Labor’s Voice for Change (2)” will be posted on Thursday, January 8, 2009.