Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Monday night, three professors spoke on a panel about the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill currently being debated in Congress which President Bush has vowed to veto if said bill makes it through the Senate. According to Professor Rick Valelly, the main provisions of the act “say that employers ought to be held accountable for intimidating practices, send people to arbitration very quickly, and sets up a card check system.”
The panel, sponsored by the Swarthmore Progressive Action Coalition, College Democrats, and the Coalition for Labor Rights, was unabashedly in favor of the act. There was even a letter-writing session following the panel so that students could write letters to their congressman encouraging them to support the act.
The panel was moderated, by Professor Jeffrey Murer of Political Science. On the panel were Political Science Professor Rick Valelly, History Professor Marjorie Murphy, and Roberta Iversen, an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work.
Murer began by stating that according to the AFL-CIO website, “60 million workers would join a union if they could… businesses force workers to attend anti-union presentations 92% of the time during union campaigns, and 79% of workers agree that they are very or somewhat likely to be fired for trying to form a union.”
Murphy began by giving some of the historical context for this latest labor bill, potentially the most important in over seventy years since the National Labor Relations Board was established by the Wagner Act in 1935. She asked students to consider “how unsuccessful labor reform bills have been over time… there are well-funded national campaigns to make sure legislation like this doesn’t happen.”
That said, “this act has possibilities… labor itself has realized the limitations of the National Labor Relations Board.” Murphy has been part of organized labor in the past. Once she was working in a candle factory where the workforce was largely composed of Latino immigrants. “Every year about the time when everyone had a lot of overtime the immigration services would come in and send people back to Mexico without collecting their pay.”
When Murphy started trying to organize a union at the factory, “it seemed as if we hadn’t been out there a week when I got fired,” and it was far more difficult to organize the union from outside the system. The next year, “the workers went on a wild-cat strike… so they could get their overtime pay before December. The company was so upset that they had to pay that they stopped making candles and blamed the union for their troubles.”
Murphy has also tried to organize community college teachers in California. Once, she remembers that she had a list of everyone and had talked to them about their vote. She determined that there was a margin of twenty people in support of the union, but “on election day I started seeing the names of schoolteachers I had never seen before.” These were supervisors of student teachers in high schools who had no connection to the college itself and who had not been listed on the initial list of employees. Murphy recalls, “there were enough of them so that we lost by one vote… the loss was so horrendous that a demoralization set in.”
Murphy told these stories in order to emphasize “how very, very difficult it is to get people to do this… even when this law passes, you’re going to need organizers doing legwork.” She pointed to new organizing tactics such as those used by Justice for Janitors in Los Angeles and community-based organizations which “answer the needs of the workers beyond the labor contract such as child-care… but they are not very good at the actual labor negotiation.”
Valelly said that he finds unions “romantic… for a while I thought I would be a labor organizer but it didn’t work out.” He thinks that growth of unions is good for democracy, and is alarmed that “they’ve been steadily shrinking since 1955… the last time growth happened was during World War Two, and the last moment where everybody in the country liked labor was the 1930s.”
He thinks that we should have card check like Canada does because it would “lower the threshold for union organizing… it would make things more democratic inside the work place.” He admits that some unions have less than democratic policies, but feels that “if the union movement grew it would be in a bottom-up democracy-building phase… unions could institute policies to make themselves more democratic.”
He’s also in favor of worker’s rights, and likes unions because “that’s less power that they have to worry about being exercised against them… there has been a diminution of rights from what people used to have. This is a rights revolution that went backwards, and this act would restore democratic rights that have been lost.”
Finally, Iversen was also in support of the act but encouraged students to think beyond unions in increasing the quality of life for workers. She cited a study which she helped to administer of twenty-five families across the country “who were trying to get better jobs for their families… we spent about four months in their children’s schools, four months in their places of business, and followed about one thousand other people in relation to these families.”
She said that many of the workers she followed got unionized jobs, and while “the unions did what they were supposed to do–higher wages, employer-provided health insurance, regular raises, and some of them had the possibility of union-sponsored upgrade training… this was not enough.” She explained that many of the workers “couldn’t afford the contribution to insurance… their raises made them ineligible for other supports, and on-the-job training meant 12-hour days or more.”
Iverson gave the example of Rachel Quinn, a woman in her forties in pre-Katrina New Orleans who was unable to get full-time work in a full-time job. She worked in the construction industry, but “was assigned work pretty infrequently… she rarely worked over four hours a day and often worked partial weeks.” At one point she was injured on the job “but hadn’t collected enough hours for health insurance.” Quinn was projected to collect $28,200 a year if her job had been full-time, but as it was, one year she only collected $6,000 in income.
Because of these facts, “the conclusion in our book is that unions cannot make major headway against wage disparities or even bad work conditions by doing it alone.” Iverson concluded, “Rachel’s experience shows that we need jobs with full-time commitments… some places can’t support enough full-time entry level jobs… worker representation may need to take something from this.”
During the question and answer session, we learned that if the proposed act had been in place during the recent efforts to organize a union at Swarthmore, conditions would have been better. One student explained that “because students had to fight for card check the campaign took much longer… if this legislation had been passed it wouldn’t even have been a question.” Murphy agreed, saying that in her experience, “the more obstacles you can put in place the more time there is for the movement to fall apart.”
Another student said “it worries me that there’s no economist on the panel,” and asked if there was any merit to counter-arguments to the Act, such as the argument that more unions will make the United States uncompetitive in the era of globalization. Valelly explained that “more and more people will be exposed to international trade no matter what… the only way to deal with that exposure is to have people in the US do things you can’t do anywhere else in the world.”
Murphy also elaborated that “the big argument is that it’s telling businesses how to run,” but stressed that workers deserve power, and continued, “I think any economist would tell you that the biggest problem in labor management and relations is how are we going to solve the health care problem.”
Valelly also believes that unions “are good for product and process innovation… you have to think about new ways to survive and it drives innovation.” Murphy also believes that increased labor action is good for both unionized and non-unionized workers, pointing to IBM, which gives great benefits specifically in order to keep unions out. She referred to this as “the invisible hand of labor.”
When asked, “what recourses are left for a labor movement if this bill is not passed?” Murphy answered, “I don’t think people ever give up when a piece of labor legislation doesn’t pass.” Since it is likely that the bill will be vetoed, “I see this as part of a strategy on labor’s part to get this issue on the table for the 2008 election… the movement will spend the summer reorganizing things and rethinking itself.”
She continued, “devastating as a loss is, we never give up.” She addressed many of the labor activists in the room when she reminded them that in almost all labor activism, “benefits will come back to the workers… even though the campaign at Swarthmore did not organize a union, it was kind of a victory because benefits did come back to the workers.”