CHN: Bill Reducing Roadblocks To Unionization Passes In House; Slower Going In Senate

On March 1, the House of Representatives passed the Employee Free Choice Act, H.R. 800, by a bipartisan margin of 241 to 185.  Thirteen Republicans joined 228 Democrats in adopting this legislation.  Prospects are uncertain in the Senate, where opponents can hold up the bill unless a 60 vote majority can be secured.  Although enough votes are promised for a simple majority, finding 60 votes will be a tall order.  The Senate version of the Employee Free Choice Act (S. 1041) is sponsored by Senator Kennedy (D-M), with 46 co-sponsors.  There are no Republican co-sponsors at this time.  The only Democrats who are not sponsors are Senators Lincoln and Pryor of Arkansas, Nelson of Nebraska, and Salazar of Colorado.
Organized labor is joined by civil rights, economic justice, and other advocates in a concerted effort to gain votes in the Senate.  Public attitudes in favor of the right to organize are increasingly favorable; a recent Hart Research poll conducted for the AFL-CIO showed that 58 percent of non-managerial workers said they would join a union if they could.  That opportunity is not available for many workers.  In 2005, more than 31,000 people were either fired or penalized by their employers for union activity.  Such actions by employers are contrary to the National Labor Relations Act, but penalties are now so slight that they are very little deterrent to union-busting activities.  At a meeting of advocates and labor representatives held at the AFL-CIO headquarters on April 19, Dan Leuvano, a worker at Reis Electric, Inc. in Wisconsin, recounted his own firing and subsequent reinstatement for his efforts to unionize.  The head of the company threatened the workers who signed cards seeking union representation, and although the National Labor Relations Board forced the rehiring of workers fired through unfair labor practices, the employer continued to attempt intimidation by worsening workplace conditions for the reinstated workers.  Eventually, a union election did take place among the small staff, with enough votes to bring in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).  Mr. Leuvano described improved benefits and working conditions after the workers were able to join the union.  Before the union, he had been unable to afford health insurance for his family; afterwards, he was able to sign up for insurance.

The Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier for workers to choose to organize.  Under the Act, if a majority of workers sign authorization cards, the employer would be forced to recognize the union.  In addition, penalties for violating the law would be increased.  Now, employers who illegally fire an employee for union activities are only required to reinstate and to provide back pay, less what the worker earned in the interim.  If employers illegally threaten to close down the company or interrogate workers, all the law requires is that they post a sign telling workers they will abide by the law.  The Employee Free Choice Act provides for up to three times back pay for workers illegally fired or disciplined, as well as fines of up to $20,000 for illegal anti-union acts.  The legislation also would require the National Labor Relations Board to seek injunctions against companies who significantly violate their employees’ rights.  The NLRB now has that power, but rarely exercises it.  While Mr. Leuvano of Reis Electric returned to work promptly, often it takes years before the NLRB orders the employer to reinstate an illegally fired employee.  In 2005, the median wait between filing an unfair labor practice charge and the NLRB ruling was 659 days.  The legislation also allows employers or workers to request mediation, followed by binding arbitration, if negotiations for a first contract are stalled beyond 90 days.

After a March 27 hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about the Employee Free Choice Act, the Senate bill was introduced two days later, and referred to the same committee.

Labor and Employment