Robert Reich
Robert Reich - 
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Kai Ryssdal: The enduring tension between labor and management has made its way to Capitol Hill. The Employee Free Choice Act was introduced in Congress yesterday. If it does become law, it would protect workers' rights to organize. That's not necessarily a popular idea with everybody, even including some Democrats. Opponents of the bill say a recession is the wrong time to make unions stronger. Commentator Robert Reich says au contraire.

ROBERT REICH: The way to get the economy back on track is to boost the purchasing power of average Americans. One way to do this is to expand the percentage of Americans in unions.

Go back 50 years, when America's middle class was growing and the economy was soaring. Good pay meant more purchases, and more purchases meant more jobs. At the center of this virtuous circle were unions. In 1955, more than a third of working Americans belonged to one. Unions gave them the bargaining leverage they needed to get the paychecks that kept the economy going.

But now, fewer than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized. Middle-class wages slowed so much in the intervening years that most Americans could maintain spending only by working more hours and then, this decade, going deep into debt. But then the bubble burst, and now there's not enough purchasing power to keep the economy going.

The decline of unions is not the only reason for the long-term slowdown in American wages. Much of what Americans used to make can now be made more cheaply abroad or by automated machines. But the vast personal-service sector of the economy is not affected by imports or automation, including millions of jobs in big-box retailers, fast-food outlets, hotel chains, hospitals, construction, and transportation.

Few of these jobs are unionized. All too often that's because employees who want to form unions are threatened by their employers. And if they don't heed the warnings, they're fired, even though that's illegal. I saw this behavior when I was secretary of Labor over a decade ago.

We tried to penalize employers that broke the law, but the fines are minuscule. Too many employers consider them a cost of doing business.

The most important feature of the Employee Free Choice Act toughens penalties against companies that violate their workers' rights. The sooner it's enacted, the better -- for American workers and for the American economy.

Kai Ryssdal:Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.