I read with disappointment Sen. Blanche Lincoln's statement that she cannot support the Employee Free Choice Act as it is now written. As I read the bill, it is a modest attempt to return to the original promise of the 1935 Wagner Act.
Together the Wagner Act, the Social Security Act, the WPA, and the Fair Labor Standards Act brought to working people in the era of the Great Depression employment, the right to unionize, unemployment insurance, social security retirement, the 40-hour week, a minimum wage, and an end to child labor. For the first time, government gave a substantial assist to needy Americans and supported workers' efforts to join unions as a means to restore some balance in an imbalanced economy dominated by the wealthy.
Arkansas's senior senator during the New Deal era, Joseph T. Robinson, was a key figure in shepherding New Deal measures through Congress. The Wagner Act expressed philosophical support for unions, banned employer interference with the self-organization of employees, and created procedures for certification of unions. Millions of workers were able to achieve collective-bargaining rights.
Sen. Lincoln emphasized the need for everyone to cooperate in fixing the economy and working together. Cooperation, however, is based on equality — a value missing from workplaces today.
Public opinion polls reveal that a majority of workers would vote for union representation if given the opportunity, yet only 13.7 percent of workers nationally — and only 8.4 percent of private sector workers — have such representation today. In Arkansas, only 7.3 percent of workers are represented by unions. Why the discrepancy? A weakening of the initial legislation combined with aggressive employer tactics limited workers' right to form unions.
Employers today routinely fire workers trying to unionize, instruct supervisors to pressure workers to oppose union representation, conduct compulsory anti-union meetings, and threaten to close the business if workers unionize. Employer power to intimidate employees prevents private-sector workers from feeling free to vote for union representation in a National Labor Relations Board election. When workers overcome their fears and vote for representation, employers often refuse to engage in good-faith bargaining to reach a collective bargaining contract.
The goal of the Employee Free Choice Act is to restore the right of workers to form unions through government action to:
• Impose increased penalties on employers who illegally interfere with workers seeking to organize a union,
• Certify unions when a majority of workers sign representation cards, and
• Provide an arbitrated first collective-bargaining contract when a certified union and management fail to reach a timely agreement.
Only if workers' right to form unions is restored in practical terms will we see a semblance of equality between workers and employers or meaningful cooperation in a recovery program.
All of us are familiar with the results of the decline of unions: the greatest gap in our history between executives and employees and between the rich and the rest of the population.
If employees gain a modicum of assistance from government in forming unions, Arkansas and the rest of the country will reap similar benefits to those Arkansans and all Americans received through the New Deal. Ordinary people will have a bit more say in their economic lives, more freedom to say what they think, and a greater sense of dignity.
Martin Halpern is a professor of history at Henderson State University.