OPINION At the end of World War II, approximately 36 percent of American workers belonged to a union. Today that number has shrunk to about 12 percent, lagging behind the world's other industrial democracies. But now, with a Democratic president in office, we have a realistic chance of enacting the most significant piece of labor legislation in decades, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would protect the right of workers to organize into a union.
The opposition, of course, is well organized and well funded. Opponents will spend more than $200 million to defeat the bill in the Senate. They will argue that EFCA is just a special interest bill that helps big labor. But the truth is that the legislation should be part of the long-term economic recovery plan and is key to rebuilding the middle class.
In 1980, average CEO pay was 42 times that of the average blue-collar worker. By 2006, CEO pay had grown to 364 times the average blue collar worker's pay. A survey of median weekly earnings in 2007 revealed that union workers make 30 percent more than their nonunion counterparts, and are 59 percent more likely to have employer-provided health coverage than other workers.
The key EFCA reform, and the one that has generated the most controversy, is called "card-check." Under EFCA, if the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) finds that a majority of employees have signed written authorization forms designating the union as their collective bargaining representative, the union is certified.
Opponents of card-check often argue, erroneously, that EFCA will deprive workers of their right to a so-called secret ballot. In fact, EFCA preserves both options, but it places the choice in the hands of workers, not employers. Moreover, the history of these "secret ballot" elections shows that they are often anything but democratic. Too often employers use their power over unorganized employees to intimidate them into voting against the union. Such documented employer tactics have included mandatory attendance at antiunion meetings, one-on-one meetings, threats to close the business if the union wins the vote, and harassing or even firing workers engaged in organizing activity.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein has an 87 percent lifetime voting record from the AFL-CIO and has co-sponsored EFCA in the past. But now, with EFCA finally within reach, she has announced that she is looking for a "less divisive" option.
Say it isn't so, Senator.
For many years progressive activists have had concerns about Feinstein, even going as far as to seek her censure at a state Democratic convention two years ago. In 2007, the party leadership reminded the activists that although she may stray occasionally, Feinstein is really a good Democrat who shares our basic values and commitments. There was no censure.
But workers' rights is no side-issue in our Democratic Party. Economic justice is the issue. This is a moment of truth for Feinstein — and all of us who are her constituents have an obligation to help her get to the right answer.
On April 28 at 7 p.m. at the LGBT Community Center, the SF Labor Council, Pride at Work, and the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club are sponsoring a community briefing on our campaign to urge Feinstein to support working people. Join us. *
Robert Haaland is the co-chair, SF Pride at Work. Rafael Mandelman is president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.