I did a double take. Was this really my political hero, George McGovern, on the TV screen speaking out against what labor calls the “Employee Free Choice Act”?
Yes, it was. McGovern, the former South Dakota senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, was in a TV political commercial deploring the notion that unions want to take away the secret ballot from working people.
My hero was speaking on behalf of an organization called the Employee Freedom Action Committee, which has spent more than $30 million fighting labor’s No. 1 issue in this campaign. Other pro-business organizations have spent millions more. The group makes its case here, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which also opposes the measure, makes its pitch here (PDF).
Labor’s top priority even baffles some of the rank and file
From the beginning of this campaign season, there has been a steady drumbeat of ads, pounding on labor’s efforts to take away the secret ballot from working people. The ad campaign has been so effective that even rank-and-file union members have asked leadership what’s up.
The first response labor leaders have to those who ask questions are more questions.
“Who’s paying for the ads?” said Candace Lund, organizing director of Minnesota’s AFL-CIO. “Since when are organizations like the Chamber of Commerce so interested in helping working people?”
These are intriguing questions.
Before moving on, a disclaimer: I was a union activist in my days at the Star Tribune. Though I didn’t have a pin-stripe suit, like the union heavies shown in the union ads, I participated in efforts to organize non-union employees at the paper. Those organizing efforts among the newspaper’s lowest-paid workers failed.
So, it turns out, the root of all the tumult and shouting over the secret ballot is the Employee Free Choice Act, labor’s top issue in the presidential and congressional races. To get labor’s endorsement, candidates have needed to state their loyalty to the act. Democrats from Barack Obama to Al Franken have vowed they will support the act. (Sens. John McCain and Norm Coleman oppose it.)
The Free Choice Act passed in the House on March 1, 2007, on a 241-to-185 vote. Passage of the act apparently caught the Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations off guard. But they quickly rallied and lobbied the Senate heavily. The action ran out of steam before it ever reached the Senate floor for a vote.
The Free Choice Act was born of necessity, according to Lund.
Unions say ‘broken system’ needs fixing
“What’s broken,” Lund said, “is that employers now have all the power. This act would take the employer out of the equation. It would allow workers to decide if they want to have a union.”
The now-“broken” system of organizing dates to 1935, when the National Labor Relations Board established two ways for workers to establish a union:
1, When 30 percent of the workers sign a card declaring they want to form a union, they can petition the NLRB for an election.
2, When a majority of the workers sign a card saying they wanted a union, an employer could choose to recognize the union.
“This is how most of the unions were formed in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s,” Lund said. “The only reason there was an election was if there were two unions trying to organize the same group of workers. The secret-ballot election was held to select which union to join.”
But, according to Lund, by the 1960s, employers stopped simply recognizing unions if a majority of workers signed cards. The employers started demanding the card signing — and the election.
That would have been fine, but, according to labor leaders, employers became much more aggressive during the election process. Individual workers were pulled aside by employers and told a union would jeopardize their job. Threats were made that a workplace would be closed if it became organized. Organizing leaders were singled out, harassed and, often, fired.
“The penalties against harassing activists is so light there’s no motivation for employers not to harass,” said Lund. “It’s illegal to fire an activist during an organizing drive, but it could take two or three years to resolve the issue. By that time, the people who were fired had moved on to other jobs.”
At worst, employers under the traditional system had to pay an unfairly fired worker for time lost and put up a sign in the workplace that said in essence: “We Won’t Do It Again.”
In recent decades, employers have grown ever more determined — and sophisticated — in fighting union organizing efforts. Not surprisingly, union membership has dwindled, and wages have stagnated.
Here’s how, labor says, the Employee Free Choice Act would level the playing field:
1. Once a majority of workers sign cards indicating they want to join a union, the cards are delivered to the NLRB. The NLRB receives a list of employees from the employer. Once names on the cards are verified with the employment list, the union is sanctioned.
2. The act requires that the union and the employer go to binding arbitration if a first contract can’t be reached within 90 days of the organization of the new union. (Currently, labor leaders say, only one-third of the new unions organized gain a contract within the first year. Some “negotiations” drag on for years.)
3. The act calls for much harsher penalties for violation of worker rights during organizing drives. The act calls for a fine of up to $20,000 for each violation.
4. 30 percent of employees in a workplace can petition the NLRB for a secret ballot vote over whether a union should represent the workers.
“This is not a radical law,” said Lund. “This just puts the decision back in the hands of workers. It’s just back to traditional practice. A good employer has nothing to fear.”
But what of my hero, McGovern.
“Perplexing,” said Lund.
Or maybe not so perplexing. Go back to 1972, when McGovern, the peace candidate, was swamped in his race against Richard Nixon. At the times, the nation’s top labor leaders were war hawks. McGovern did NOT receive labor endorsement from big labor.
This gentle, old man has a very good memory.