Freedom of association

By Michelle Chen May 29, 2009

The fight over the Employee Free Choice Act is getting uglier by the day. While the business interests campaign hard to kill the legislation, the labor movement is trying to beef up its offense by broadening it. The bill would institute a “card check” system, based on employee sign-up cards–an alternative to the current voting procedures governed by the National Labor Relations Board, which have been heavily criticized for inviting corruption and union-busting. The political fight has prompted organized labor to acknowledge that its movement must also engage issues of racial inequality. At the annual convention of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists last week, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka stated:

The danger within the labor movement is that we try to define every problem in strictly economic terms. Because of that, to the extent unions talk about racial injustice at all, we characterize it as a subset of economic injustice. But not every issue can be cut as economic.  If we want to prevent white members from falling into the trap of believing that racism is now a thing of the past, I think that we, as a movement, we have a responsibility to educate them that there is a racial dynamic to the issues we face.

Grafting a race analysis onto labor issues illuminates which workers have the most to gain from unionization. In an analysis of the potential impact of the EFCA (part of a larger compendium from the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center), researchers from U.C.-Riverside concluded:

We see that industries that have a higher proportion of high school dropouts, Latinos, and younger workers are less likely to have union wins in certification elections. This suggests that the workers most likely to unionize under the Employee Free Choice Act are some of the most disadvantaged workers in the labor market. On the other hand, industries with larger shares of females and African Americans are more likely to have certification elections that end in favor of forming a union. This latter finding is probably partly due to their increased concentration in the public sector, where union busting is less extensive…. This is what one would expect given that efforts by employers to intimidate organizing workers tend to be especially effective when workers are vulnerable, such as when they risk deportation, lack human capital, or when they are desperate for work…

The researchers cited other studies showing that “unions have an important role in decreasing income inequality by increasing the wages of traditionally disadvantaged groups in the labor market" and that discrimination is less prevalent in unionized sectors. Meanwhile, despite rumors about about the backdoor gutting of the EFCA, the fight in Washington rages on. Opposition groups like the Heritage Foundation are churning out talking points that portray the EFCA as a threat to democracy. On the other side, a new analysis of public sector workers in four states found that “the majority sign-up provision was used extensively without hint of union or employer abuse.” For a lesson in democracy, compare and contrast with other findings about the rampant abuse and coercion of pro-union workers. As the legislative jockeying heats up, both sides will keep hurling data and bar graphs at each other. But ultimately, unions are recognizing that the fate of the Employee Free Choice Act turns on something more visceral—a sense among workers that the labor movement’s future and struggles for racial justice are intertwined, and that neither can triumph without the other. Image: American Rights at Work (via flickr)