Labor's Voice for Change (35) May 14, 2009

AFL-CIO Tells Unorganized Workers:
Now Is not the Time to Join a Union

By Harry Kelber

The AFL-CIO has been conducting the biggest lobbying campaign in its history to persuade Congress to approve the Employee Free Choice Act. It started its EFCA campaign about four years ago, and since then, it has been pouring countless millions of dollars into a full-scale campaign to make EFCA a top priority issue for the labor movement. It has inspired a continuous bombardment of e-mails to lawmakers to win their support for the measure.

The AFL-CIO’s case for EFCA is clear and straightforward. Employers are using intimidation, coercion and the threat of discharge to pressure their employees from forming or joining a union. Union leaders say that an EFCA law would “level the playing field” between labor and management. It would make it easier for workers to join a union by signing an authorization card, rather than by voting in a Labor Board election, where employers can influence the outcome. It is the “card check” system that has aroused fierce opposition from employer groups.

One of the unfortunate side-effects of the EFCA campaign is that union organizing is at a virtual standstill. Labor leaders are holding back on their recruiting plans until the passage of a “card check” law, when they expect huge lines of workers ready to join.

In their quest for EFCA, labor leaders have sent a wrong-headed message to unorganized workers. We’ve told them that unions are too weak to protect them from their employers, and that now is not the time to join a union because they might get fired. This is a message they are likely to remember when, in the future, a union organizer shows up at their workplace.

What If Labor’s Gamble for EFCA Is Lost or Delayed?

A strategic mistake by the AFL-CIO leadership is in not mobilizing unorganized workers to play an active role in the EFCA campaign. After all, they are the ones who would be the principal beneficiaries of the legislation, giving them the right to join a union and enjoy its benefits.

While union members everywhere have supported the EFCA campaign and are looking forward to its passage, they would also deem it wise and prudent to plan on alternatives in case Congress does not approve the legislation.

There are events that might make a difference: huge rallies at the home of every legislator who is uncommitted or intends to vote "No" on EFCA; a National Labor March in Washington; a 2-hour national work stoppage or some other attention-getting action that dramatizes EFCA as a life-and-death issue for the labor movement.

* * * * *

Right now, unions are still waiting — and hoping — that Congress will act favorably and soon on EFCA, although there is no guarantee that it will. It is disheartening to learn that a small group of Democratic Senators, led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, intends to vote “no”, when EFCA comes up for a vote. Equally disturbing is the undenied rumor that the Obama administration is looking for a compromise on EFCA that would satisfy the business community.

If there is a lesson to be learned from the current struggle over the Employee Free Choice Act, it is that you \win legislative battles by exhibiting your strengths, not your weaknesses. Pleading is never as effective as demanding in dealing with opponents.

Article 36 of “Labor’s Voice for Change” will be posted on Tuesday. May 19.