A look at recent headlines about the financial crisis raises the question, has our country lost sight of its core values? Banking and insurance executives who are partly responsible for the current economic meltdown have received billions in bonuses, yet working families are struggling to stay in their homes, obtain health insurance, send their kids to college, pay the bills and hold on to their jobs. Income for the average working person was actually less in 2007 than in 2000, when adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, CEO pay has skyrocketed to more than 400 times the average worker’s pay. In 1973, it was only 27 times as high.
Here in Massachusetts, we have one of the greatest disparities in wealth of anywhere in the country, and for many working people it is a daily struggle to make ends meet. For instance in the hospital industry, one of our largest and wealthiest employers, over 19,337 workers and their dependents had to rely on public health insurance last year. It is clear that we need to return to our country’s founding principles of valuing hard work and respecting the dignity of working people once again. That is the heart of the Employee Free Choice Act,
a common sense piece of legislation that is supported by strong majorities in Congress and the Senate, including Senators Kennedy and Kerry, who are co-sponsors.
The Employee Free Choice Act protects the lawful rights of working people when they are trying to form unions. Union membership is a proven way of ensuring economic security and a decent standard of living for working families. Research has shown that union members make an average of $10,000 a year more than non-union workers, are 63% more likely to have employer-provided healthcare and 67% more likely to have a pension. Many economists have also shown that increased union membership helps stimulate and balance the economy by putting more purchasing power in the hands of workers. That’s why a majority of working people, when surveyed, say they would join a union if they could. So why aren’t more workers joining unions?
Listen to the experience of local healthcare worker Anestine. She had been a nurse assistant at a Boston area nursing home for 13 years when she and her co-workers tried to form a union to improve jobs and quality of care. According to Anestine, “The management was so hateful towards to us, they made us feel like we would lose our jobs if we voted for the union. They preyed on the most vulnerable, those who were living paycheck to paycheck, and my co-workers became paralyzed with fear. At one point, they took workers off the floors, away from the bedside to watch anti-union videos, and one of our elderly residents left the home and was wandering the streets of South Boston.”
Employers routinely and flagrantly violate workers’ rights when they try to form unions for a voice. 25% of companies illegally fire pro-union workers, and 92% force employees to attend interrogation meetings with their supervisors. Most often, management hires high-priced anti-union consultants that specialize in breaking the workers’ will through spreading misinformation, causing division and intimidating workplace leaders. In a healthcare setting, these anti-worker campaigns are particularly destructive because they waste patient care dollars, put tremendous stress on caregivers, take the focus off care delivery and ultimately undermine quality of care.
The penalties under current labor law are so weak that employers can easily get away with violating workers’ lawful rights and are never held accountable. Indeed, because of employer intimidation and harassment, the current system more closely resembles sham elections in third world dictatorships rather than any process that Americans would consider democratic.
The Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers to form unions without having to go through what Anestine experienced, by fixing our labor laws in three ways:
* The Free Choice Act would substantially increase penalties for employers who fire workers or violate their legal rights.
* The Act would help workers negotiate a first contract once they form their union by calling for arbitration after 120 days of negotiations.
* The Free Choice Act would allow workers to decide how they want to form their union. Contrary to misinformation from big business and the Mass Hospital Association, the Free Choice Act would not eliminate secret ballot union elections, but rather it would give workers the choice of either signing union support cards or holding an election.
During the economic boom, construction workers, nurses, teachers, janitors and other working people toiled away at their jobs, helping to create great wealth. Americans reached the highest productivity levels of any workers in the industrialized world, but experienced very little of the economic benefit. Now, big corporations and those who represent their interests are shamelessly telling us that working people should not even have the basic right to form a union free from intimidation.
The American Constitution guarantees our rights to freedom of assembly and association, and forming a union should be no more difficult than joining a church or a political party. The time has come for working families to have a fair process for gaining a collective voice so we can once again achieve a balanced economy with shared prosperity. The time has come for the Employee Free Choice Act.
Executive Vice President for 1199SEIU for the Massachusetts Division.
This program aired on March 27, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.