Hoffa: Labor Unions Know There Is Safety in Numbers

Corporate campaign to kill card check shows it's needed, argues James P. Hoffa.

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James P. Hoffa has been general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters since March 1999.

Every day in the United States, dozens of workers who legally try to join a union are spied on, harassed, intimidated, and fired. Union-busting is a thriving industry for corporate thugs and lawyers throughout this country.

It didn't used to be this way. In the 1950s, only a handful of workers were illegally disciplined or fired for union activity, resulting in

back-pay awards. In 2006, 32,000 workers were awarded back-pay by the National Labor Relations Board because employers illegally punished them for trying to join a union.

The Employee Free Choice Act would give back to workers a fair shot at joining a union. It is our No. 1 priority to see that Congress enacts it. 

Now, I don't like to call people liars. But the multimillion-dollar corporate campaign to kill the legislation is making a lot of people say things that aren't true. One falsehood is that the act would eliminate the secret ballot in union elections. It would not. The Employee Free Choice Act would allow workers to choose a secret ballot or majority sign-up when deciding whether to join a union. Under majority sign-up, workers could join a union if most of them sign cards saying that they want to join a union.

I think that's fair. If you can sign a card to join the Republican Party, you should be able to sign a card to join a union.

The way it works now, it's the employer, not the worker, who holds all the power and chooses how workers will make the decision to join a union.

Employers almost always choose secret elections. These elections are fair in the way secret elections in East Germany were fair. Employers hire union-busters to determine workers' preferences. Workers who support unions are threatened, intimidated, and fired.

Melinda Burns, for example, worked as a reporter for the News-Press in Santa Barbara, Calif., for 21 years. Burns led the fight to join a union. She and 80 percent of News-Press staffers signed cards stating they wanted to join a union. But her employer wouldn't recognize the cards. The workers were forced by the employer to hold a secret election.

In the fall of 2006, the News-Press workers cast secret ballots in favor of joining a union. But the employer challenged the vote. Eight workers, including Burns, were fired for their union activity.

A year ago, an administrative law judge ruled that the News-Press firings broke the law. The judge ordered the employer to reinstate the workers immediately and give them back-pay. 

The News-Press appealed the ruling, as management usually does. Melinda Burns is still waiting to get her back-pay and her job back.

Remember, she was illegally fired nearly three years ago.

Unfortunately, there are thousands of Melinda Burnses in America today. I talk to pro-union workers who are illegally videotaped by their employer. I talk to pro-union workers who get fired just to send a message to other workers that they'd better not try to join a union. 

Americans want their workplaces to be fair. That's why they support the Employee Free Choice Act by overwhelming margins. A January 8 Hart Research Associates poll showed 73 percent of American adults want the legislation to become law. 

There's another false argument against the legislation—that strengthening unions will damage the economy. The fact is that America experienced its greatest economic growth when unions were strong. Union membership stood at 35 percent of the workforce in the 1950s, a time when America enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. Now, only 12 percent of the workforce belongs to unions, and we're in the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

In fact, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce in a 2007 speech: "Whatever the precise mechanism through which lower rates of unionization affected the wage structure, the available research suggests that it can explain between 10 percent and 20 percent of the rise in wage inequality among men during the 1970s and 1980s."