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KAI RYSSDAL: President Obama’s hoping third time’s a charm with his latest cabinet pick. Today, former Washington state Governor Gary Locke was nominated to run the Commerce Department.
Yesterday former Representative Hilda Solis was sworn in as Labor Secretary. And her confirmation has brought new hope to advocates for workers’ rights. They’ve been trying for years to convince Congress to pass something called the Employee Free Choice Act. It’ll make it easier for workers to organize and stiffen penalties for the companies that try to stop them
Our Washington Bureau Chief John Dimsdale reports now on the latest political struggle between labor and management.
JOHN DIMSDALE: For a sense of what’s at stake for both sides, all you have to do is turn on TV.
Ad announcer: The Employee Free Choice Act will let workers choose to form a union to get better pay, health benefits and job security.
Ad announcer: Some union bosses and their politician friends want to effectively do away with privacy when it comes to voting on joining a union.
The number of unionized workers has shrunk from 30 percent in the 1950s to only 12 percent today. At issue here is a struggle over how new unions are formed. Current rules require the government’s National Labor Relations Board to run a secret vote for employees to decide whether to create a union. Setting up the election takes a while and that gives employers the upper hand, says Mary Beth Maxwell who runs the union-funded American Rights at Work.
MARY BETH MAXWELL: Tens of thousands of workers a year are illegally fired for trying to exercise their right to form a union. It’s an incredibly effective tool to scare people. Because if you can lose your job tomorrow, in these kind of economic times, who feels like they can take that kind of risk?
To discourage that kind of intimidation, the Employee Free Choice Act increases penalties on employers and grants illegally-fired workers more back pay. The Act allows workers to sign cards to petition for a union. If fifty percent plus one of the employees sign the cards, the union is approved without a secret ballot election run by the government. Opponents like Rob Green at the National Retail Federation, say that makes workers subject to intimidation from union organizers.
ROB GREEN:If an organizer shows up at employees house at dinner time or in the parking lot, many cases a card is signed and not an indication of whether or not a union is favored, its just done to say ‘Hey I’ll signed a card and I’ll move on to go back to my job.’
Mary Beth Maxwell says workers don’t worry about union intimidation.
MAXWELL: Everybody who gets up and goes to work in the morning knows who has the power at work. It’s your boss. That’s where workers are experiencing intimidation and harassment. That’s what the Employee Free Choice Act is trying to remedy saying we just need to level the playing field so people really can make a fair choice about whether or not they want to form a union.
And the AFL-CIO’s Stewart Acuff says without greater collective bargaining protections, nothing less than the American middle class is at stake.
STEWART ACUFF:Corporate America had it their way for thirty years. Our wages have declined, our standard of living has declined. It’s time to balance the economy and make an economy that works for all of us and promises to give our kids and grandkids the same kind of opportunity, the same quality of life that we’ve enjoyed.
But opponents in Congress, like Minnesota Republican John Kline — a member of the House Labor Committee — say expanding union membership isn’t necessarily good in the current economy.
JOHN KLINE: If you look at the legacy costs of the auto manufacturers, they have union contracts that are weighing them down. And so there are implications for the economy as a whole if this were to pass.
The Employee Free Choice Act — which passed the House last session, but not the Senate — will be reintroduced in the next few weeks. President Obama says he’ll sign if it reaches his desk.
In Washington I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.
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