Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Upcoming EFCA Battle

I think it is important to note upfront that I am employed by what is perhaps the most notorious anti-union corporation in the United States. I have to admit that I believe I am risking my job just writing about this subject, but it is important and needs to be addressed. The looming reintroduction (correction - it was introduced today) of the Employee Free Choice Act, popularly known as the "Card Check Bill", already has various groups lining up for what will be a very ugly fight. Yesterday, my employer got a stock downgrade because of "fears" EFCA will pass, "hurting" their "profitability".

Let me say for the record that (a) Employee Free Choice will pass; (b) not just WalMart, but Target and other retailers, as well as foreign companies such as Toyota that have manufacturing plants in southern "right to work" states will fight tooth and nail, after passage, to block any unionization efforts; (c) eventually - in no more than five years, and perhaps a good deal fewer - WalMart will be unionized, and once it is done, just as with the automobile industry and steel during the Depression, and the protracted machinists fight in various tool and dye manufactures (my grandfather fought that battle for years) - many, including major shareholders in WalMart (who mostly include the children of founder Sam Walton) will wonder what the fuss was about. In other words, the final push to organize the retail sector will result in a win-win for both the company and the employees.

Now, as the above-linked report from National Public Radio's Morning Edition notes, both business and labor groups are using the current economic downturn to argue that the bill, if it becomes law, would hurt (business)/help (labor) the economy. A spokesman from the National Federation of Independent Business is quoted as saying:
A lot of small-business owners tell us that if they are forcibly organized under this legislation, a lot of them will close their doors, so you're going to have job losses from businesses shutting down, so it is going to have an impact on the economy. . .

On the other hand, a senior official with the AFL-CIO says:
"This is one of the most important issues facing America today." He argues that one of the reasons for current economic stagnation is that workers haven't gotten meaningful wage increases in recent decades. And as a result they've lost buying power.

"We need to put more money in the hands of the people who will spend it in this economy. You can't power this economy if average Americans can't buy things, and this will allow workers to negotiate for a fair share of the wealth that they create so that they can then spend it and power this economy."

For the record, I can't imagine folks in true small businesses clamoring to join the SEIU or Teamsters, although that is certainly possible. On the other hand, the point made by labor's representative was something even Henry Ford - perhaps the most virulently anti-labor corporate giant in American history - understood. While he certainly hated unions, his position vis-a-vis his employees was highly paternalistic (in both the good and bad senses of that term), which was at the heart of his anti-labor position. He paid his assembly line workers enough money to purchase the vehicles they produced, figuring that not to do so just made no sense. While hardly making a living wage, Ford employees could buy the Model T's and later Model A's with relative ease.

Wages have been stagnant for close to a generation, the only real uptick occurring during the last couple years of the Clinton Administration. While there is no guarantee that EFCA, if passed, will begin a new wave of workplace organizing leading to higher wages, the idea that paying people more to buy more at a time of depressed demand makes much more sense than threatening to close down an independent local grocer because the forty employees want to join a local union.

Also, it should be noted that the insistence by business that EFCA eliminates the secret ballot is simply not the case. As labor law currently exists, unorganized workplaces face so many obstacles - and employees in virulently anti-labor corporations face termination and intimidation - that furthering the goal of organizing unskilled and semi-skilled workplaces is impossible in practical terms. EFCA makes the first step toward organizing easy, secret (from the company), and much less threatening. The rest of the process - including a final vote by secret ballot - still occurs; yet making a preference known as to whether or not a workplace wishes to organize will be easier and far less strewn with obstacles.

In any event, I believe that the battle will be pretty ugly, with both sides making charges and counter-charges. I believe some companies (not necessarily my own) will get pretty intimidating toward workers who might consider starting an organizing drive. At the end of the day, however, EFCA will be a boon to both labor and the service/retail sector, the economy, and we will wonder what all the fuss was about.

Virtual Tin Cup

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