Workers need stronger unionizing rights

Commentator Robert Reich

SCOTT JAGOW: Tomorrow, the House votes on whether to make a major change in how workers choose whether to join a union. It's been done the same way sine 1935 — by secret ballot under the National Labor Relatoins Act. But House Democrats want to end the secret ballots and just have a straight up-or-down vote. Commentator Robert Reich says it's about time.


ROBERT REICH: The right to form a union isn't worth the paper the National Labor Relations Act is written on if you can get fired from your job for trying to form one. While it's illegal for an employer to do this, the penalty for getting caught is a slap on the wrist.

Charges of illegal dismissals take years to wind their way through the National Labor Relations Board. And even when the Board finds that an employer acted illegally, the worst that can happen is the worker has to be rehired and given back pay that was lost.

In 2005 alone, over 30,000 American workers were awarded back pay because their employers were found to have illegally fired or otherwise discriminated against them for their union activities.

A half century ago, most employers obeyed the law and allowed workers to organize. But in the 1980s and 90s, competition heated up, investors demanded higher returns, employers felt increasing pressure to cut wages, and union-busting became the name of the game.

Nowadays, even though polls show most workers would organize a union if they could, the process is so long and drawn out — so susceptible to illegal firings and harassment — it's rare they even get to choose.

So why not a simple up-or-down vote on having a union? Employer groups say this would allow pro-union workers to intimidate other workers. So even if a majority is in favor, they say, employers should still be able to call for a secret ballot. But that's the current rule, the practical effect of which has been to give employers time to use threats and coercion to prevent unionization.

A secret ballot sounds democratic, but workplaces aren't democracies because employers have the power to hire and fire. That's where the potential for intimidation lies. And the only way around it is to go with a simple up-or-down vote.

America's rising economic tide has been lifting executive yachts, but leaving most working people in leaky boats. Workers need more bargaining power. They should be allowed to form a union when a majority of them wants one. As simple as that.

JAGOW: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He was the Labor Secretary under President Clinton.

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