A Plea for the Employee Free Choice Act





Mr. Schwartz is the urator of the ILWU Oral History Collection at the ILWU library in San Francisco and an oral historian at the Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University. His latest book is: Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU (University of Washington Press, 2009).

The year 1984 marked the fiftieth anniversary of organized labor's victory in the great 1934 West Coast maritime and San Francisco general strikes. On that occasion, Harry Bridges, hero of the strike and founder and legendary leader of the Pacific Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union, declared, "The principles for which we fought in 1934 are still true and still useful. Whether your job is pushing a four-wheeler or programming a computer, I don't know of any way for working people to win basic economic justice and dignity except by being organized into a solid, democratic union." This year, as the ILWU, its union allies, and its progressive friends celebrate another quarter-century since the events of 1934, Bridges's statement remains as valid as ever.

The rank-and-file testimonies in my new book, often echo Bridges's assertion. These workers were fortunate to join their union when they did. Today, millions of unorganized workers would like to be in unions, too. But collective bargaining representation is hard to come by. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 guarantees workers "full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment." Yet the spirit and often the letter of the law have been systematically flouted by employers since at least the 1960s. Between 1960 and the present, the number of unionized workers in the United States has declined from 30 percent to about 12 percent.

At the hint of an organizing drive, workers are subjected to strident, misleading employer anti-union house meetings. Activists are intimidated on the job. They are fired and blacklisted with impunity for union activity, although such reprisals are explicitly forbidden under the NLRA. If a union still wins a representation election under the law's National Labor Relations Board, which was created to enforce the act, employers endlessly maneuver to avoid signing a contract. In this way, they defeat unions with such regularity that labor activists frequently avoid utilizing the NLRB because they regard it as an impediment to organization rather than an aid.

A partial solution to this state of affairs is now before Congress in the form of the Employee Free Choice Act. Although the nation's attention to EFCA has flagged in recent months because of other issues, including the war in Afghanistan and health care reform, EFCA represents the most important effort to achieve meaningful labor law reform on the national level since an equally important bill was defeated by corporate lobbyists in 1978.

EFCA would allow workers to collect union pledge cards to gain NLRB certification in lieu of holding a representation election. Employers charge that this provision would end the NLRB's democratic selection process, but it would not. It would merely provide another means of certification, enabling workers to avoid the employer coercion possible under the NLRB electoral system. The law would also require arbitration after union certification if no contract could be agreed to within a reasonable amount of time. This would stop employers from stalling endlessly at the bargaining table. Finally, the law would mandate meaningful penalties on employers for "unfair labor practices" and would include restitution for mistreated workers.

Although the odds for the passage of EFCA seem long today despite a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president, the importance of EFCA should not be forgotten. In mid-2009, many of America's labor historians signed a statement that strongly endorsed the act. This was a good beginning. Going forward, all of us who are committed to social justice should do what we can to support passage of EFCA in the immediate future.



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Peter Kovachev - 12/23/2009

...not so much (just a little) over Rick's typo in the intro, but your brazen attempt to hoodwink us that exposing workers to *both* employer and union pressure is somehow a "progressive" step, Mr Schwartz. Otherwise, as a travesty of scholarship -- with its dishonest obscurantism, cheesy propagandising and publication marketing -- your piece is rather normative for the genre. But let us deconstruct a little.

"The rank-and-file testimonies in my new book, often echo Bridges's assertion" (Paragraph 2). So, our data base is to be "testimonies" and "asertions"?

"Today, millions of unorganized workers would like to be in unions, too (Par.2)." That's a big claim and quite conveniently, impossible to verify or falsify. Alas, let's say that if "millions" are indeed chomping at their bit to join unions, we shouldn't then need to coerce workers with an Employee "Free Choice" Act and its future brass-knuckles enforcers.

"Between 1960 and the present, the number of unionized workers in the United States has declined from 30 percent to about 12 percent" (Par.2). Right, and your legislation will cure such "ills" as worker distrust of unions, union mismanagement and corruption, not to mention the contraction of the American manufacturing base.

"A partial solution to this state of affairs is now before Congress in the form of the Employee Free Choice Act (Par.3). If this "solution," where workers now become exposed to notoriously gentle and fair union organizers as well, is only "partial," what would a "full" one be? Legislated unionization under unions selected by the "dictatorship of the proletariat"? Full nationalization of all enterprise? Incidentally, I can think of at least several minor legislative changes and methods which would guarantee anonymity and protect workers from both employer misconduct and union goonerism...and so can most people, I wager. But of course, such measures might not increase union membership and might even, horror of horrors, result in a radical reform of the labour establishment.

"In mid-2009, many of America's labor historians signed a statement that strongly endorsed the act (Par.4)." A rather feeble appeal to a dubious authority. It begs several questions, such as how many labour historians there are, what "many" means, and would they all be of your caliber and political bend?

Don't get me wrong, Mr Schwartz, I'm not anti-union, just that the only way "forward" I see is through an increase of worker rights, choices and protections, not reductions and removals, as your newspeak-named legislation promises.


Tom L Cox - 12/22/2009

Secret ballots are such a problem especially when you are a Stainist


Grant W Jones - 12/22/2009

Do you have any other Stalinists and traitors for heroes?


John D. Beatty - 12/21/2009

I do not need nor want any pointy-headed academic or goon in an expensive suit to tell me what I should or should not do with my labor.

Unions are an anachronism that should be buried next to high-button shoes and smallpox scars.

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