PI Original Josh Kalven Monday November 17th, 2008, 5:14pm

The Employee Free Choice Act: What's At Stake

In 1980, the United Labor Unions set out to organize employees at Detroit fast food chains in the hopes of sparking a nationwide movement to unionize the workforce in this fast-growing industry.  As a rookie organizer working on the campaign, I learned firsthand what is at ...

In 1980, the United Labor Unions set out to organize employees at Detroit fast food chains in the hopes of sparking a nationwide movement to unionize the workforce in this fast-growing industry.  As a rookie organizer working on the campaign, I learned firsthand what is at stake when workers stand up for better wages, healthcare, and a voice on the job.

We started with a Burger King franchise in Detroit’s Greyhound station. While the drive was a challenge, the spark spread between employees as they encouraged each other to join the union and stand up to their managers. Greyhound Food Management ran a tough campaign to keep workers from organizing -- threatening some, making promises to others -- but didn’t succeed. By a margin of just one vote, the Burger King employees opted to create a union.

Encouraged by our victory, we shifted our focus to three McDonald’s franchises on Detroit’s North Side. The employees were struggling with all kinds of issues -- minimum wage violations, sexual harassment, unfair scheduling, and health and safety issues ranging from grill burns to meat slicer injuries. Fed up and fired up, they decided to organize a union and won overwhelming support from their co-workers. Nothing could stop them.

Or so they thought.

As workers started building their union inside the three local franchises, top-level corporate executives watched closely. It quickly became clear that the McDonald’s Corporation would take extreme measures to prevent their low-wage, part-time workforce from coming together to demand better jobs and working conditions.

A few weeks after we began, a team of psychologists rolled in. They quickly went to work, systematically interrogating each employee in a not-so-subtle attempt to intimidate them out of joining the union.

In the weeks that followed, McDonald’s brought in a high-powered corporate law firm that filed motion after motion to delay the union election that would give these McDonald’s workers an opportunity to unite. As the lawyers buried us in depositions, motions, and labor board charges, they were purposely slowing down the election process and buying McDonald’s more time to run an anti-union campaign built on spreading fear and misinformation among its workers. 

One by one, the strongest pro-union voices in the three franchises were either demoted, forced out, or fired. 

The coup de grace was a mandatory “party” hosted by McDonald’s a few nights before the scheduled election. It featured an array of celebrities -- everyone from Detroit’s number-one deejay to football star Earl Campbell -- who each explained the evils of uniting in a union. Even a costumed Ronald McDonald was on hand to bust the organizing effort, running a raffle with cash prizes for everyone.  

When the election finally took place, workers opted against the union by a 60-40 percent margin. And every time we tried to support workers in other McDonald’s franchises, we ran into the same harassment and intimidation. 

Since those days in Detroit, I’ve stood with tens of thousands of workers who have united through the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) for a voice on the job. But in my nearly 29 years in the labor movement, I’ve seen too many forced to back down from their dream of a living wage and a better quality of life because their employers deliberately delayed or interfered with their right to form a union. 

Today, with the economy in crisis, working families are under attack like never before. Companies are slashing hours, delaying raises, hiking co-payments, or eliminating healthcare all together. It has never been more important for working people to have the freedom to unite on the job and fight back against the “race to the bottom” in pay, benefits and working conditions. Unfortunately, the number of men and women who are union members is at a historic low, and it’s hitting all of us.

In January, a new president and a new Congress will be sworn in with a mandate for change. Number one on their list should be to make it easier for workers like the ones I knew in Detroit to form a union and finally join the middle class.

To do that, Congress needs to pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) – a law that makes the right to join a union a fundamental freedom, just like freedom of speech or religion, and says that workers should be allowed to come together without the kind of intimidation that happened in those McDonald’s and in so many other workplaces every day.

Under current law, even if a majority of workers sign up for a union, the company can veto that decision and demand an election. This gives the company time to fire or harass workers and threaten to close the workplace to coerce workers into voting against a union. Under the EFCA, if a majority of employees sign cards indicating they want to organize, then the company has to recognize the union, as long as it is certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). 

While strong-arming employees to keep them from organizing has been illegal for a generation, the current penalties for union-busting amount to nothing more than wrist-slaps. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, companies break the law with impunity and often factor in potential penalties as the cost of doing business. There are even law firms who openly specialize in “union avoidance” to help employers handle the minimal fines. The EFCA would level the playing field by requiring the NLRB to take immediate legal action to reinstate workers fired for union activity and triple the penalties for companies that punish or fire employees for engaging in protected organizing activities.

Not surprisingly, McDonald’s is already set to fight back against the EFCA. They have joined their fellow corporations -- such as other fast food companies, hotel chains, and mega-retailers like Wal-Mart --  in promising to spend more than $500 million to pressure President Obama and Congressional Democrats to avoid the bill.

Now is the time to do just the opposite. It was a new president elected during the depths of the Great Depression, after years of Republican misrule, that enshrined the right of American workers to form a union as part of the New Deal. Now it’s our turn to rise to the occasion and write the next chapter.

This fight is not just for union members. This is a fight for anyone who believes that workers deserve a living wage, that healthcare is a human right, that CEO pay is out of control, and that the race to the bottom has got to stop. As progressives, we need to come together and push back. It’s you and me and millions of workers versus Ronald McDonald and his union-busting friends. To win, we need all of you.

Keith Kelleher was one of the initial founders of United Labor Unions Local 880 in Chicago, which later affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and became SEIU Local 880. Under Kelleher’s leadership, Local 880 pioneered the organization of home care, child care and other low-wage workers, growing the local from only 200 members in 1983 to over 68,000 by 2008. This year, Local 880 joined forces with two other SEIU health care locals and formed SEIU Healthcare Illinois & Indiana (HCII).  With over 85,000 members, SEIU HCII is the largest union local of any union in Illinois and the Midwest, and the fifth largest local of SEIU. Kelleher was elected president of SEIU HCII earlier this year, and elected an international vice-president of SEIU at its convention in June.

Editor’s note: The SEIU Illinois State Council sponsors Progress Illinois.  Those readers who want to join SEIU’s campaign to pass the Employee Free Choice Act can learn more here.


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