The economic news gets ever more frightening. Manufacturing employment is now less than it has been since 1946. Unemployment is over 8% and rising rapidly. And the downturn has gone global, with much of Eastern Europe virtually bankrupt, Europe and much of Asia faring far worse than we are. America's pride–the broad middle class–seems as endangered as its auto companies.
That is why the Employee Free Choice Act is so vital. Slated to be introduced in both houses of Congress today, Employee Free Choice revives the right to organize and bargain collectively in America.
That right has effectively been trampled over the last thirty years. Reagan first opened up all out warfare on unions. Companies learned they could get away with suppressing labor organizers–firing, threatening or intimidating them in flagrant violation of the law. At worst companies would face a slap on the wrist issued years after the violations in a small percentage of the cases.
The results were brutally effective. Unions once represented about 30% of the labor force, and labor contracts helped set the bar that raised union and non-union wages and conditions. Now labor represents only about 7.5% of private sector employees–despite that fact that a majority of workers say they could like a union on the job if they could get one.
Over the past eight years, we witnessed the devastating results. From 2001 to 2008, the economy grew, profits rose, CEO salaries soared, but wages didn't keep up with prices. The median household income–the income in the middle of the income scale–lost $2000 over the decade. Family wages were essentially stagnant over 30 years. Families took on record debts–second mortgages, home equity loans, refinancing, consumer and credit card loans–to keep their heads above water. That was central to the financial bubble than now has burst, torpedoing the global economy.
So a central question in the recovery is what changes do we make to insure that we don't go back to an economy in which the few capture all the rewards, and the many fall further and further behind? That will take heavy lifting to get us out of the hole, regulation to curb the financial casino, investment in areas vital to our future–and an aggressive wage policy to insure that the blessings of growth are widely shared.
An aggressive wage policy would include a minimum wage that returned to the levels it was in the 1960s, enforcement of fair labor standards, health reform so that rising health care costs didn't eat up all raises.
At the center of the reforms should be the Employee Free Choice Act. This act would allow workers–not employers–to decide whether to have an election or use majority sign up to establish a union. It would strengthen penalties for violating the rights of workers seeking to organize. It would establish a mandatory arbitration for the first agreement after a period of time, to insure that both sides bargain in good faith.
Lots of folks have lots of concerns about unions. But the reality is that they are the only instrument we've used to insure the creation of a broad middle class. We don't do much redistribution of income by taxation. We don't have much of a public social contract. What we had when America's middle class was built was strong unions that insured that workers got a decent share of the profits and productivity they helped to generate.
And that's why the Employee Free Choice Act can't wait. We can't go back to the old economy of excess speculation, and Gilded Age inequality. We need to make the key changes in the course of the recovery to set the new economy on a separate choice. Strong unions aren't the only answer, but they are a central part of any answer.
The corporate lobby–led by the Chamber of Commerce–has promised a war to the end to stop Employee Free Choice, including $200 million or more in attack ads and the like. Unions are mobilizing to reach their own members for what promises to be a central fight this year.
But this isn't just a union fight. All of us have a stake in strong unions creating the conditions for broadly shared prosperity. All progressive causes–from civil rights to the women's movement to worker health and safety–have depended on unions to be a central part of the change coalition. This will be a brutal fight, but it is one worth winning.