Sometimes an opportunity for reform comes along that is "strategic" in that it changes the playing field for efforts to win other reforms in the future. The passage of the National Labor Relations Act - establishing the right of American workers to organize unions and bargain collectively - was a strategic reform. It increased the power of people previously excluded from power, and thereby reduced the power of corporate interests.
But the right of workers in America to organize has been steadily eroded by unpunished abuses by anti-union employers. Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is easy to justify on the basis of guaranteeing the basic human rights of working Americans. When the Employee Free Choice Act is signed into law, millions of private sector workers will have greater protection from having their rights violated.
What difference would that make? Ask Steve Arney. He used to be a reporter at the Bloomington Pantagraph, a newspaper in Illinois owned by Lee Enterprises.
A majority of employees at the Pantagraph signed cards to support forming a union with the St. Louis Newspaper Guild. Lee Enterprises responded with a campaign to defeat the effort by Pantagraph employees to form a union.
As part of Lee's anti-union campaign, Steve Arney lost his job.
Arney had worked at the Pantagraph for sixteen years. He'd been a writer in various departments, and had had excellent evaluations. At the time of the organizing drive, he was working as a Features writer. Arney says:
"They said I was selected because they had decided to cut a job in Features, and I had the least seniority among three people who were writing for Features. To which I responded, 'Well, we know that's a lie, because I can work in any other department in the newsroom.' I had proven year after year that I was a very versatile reporter. I was selected because I was involved in the union, it's just that simple."
Firing someone for supporting a union is a violation of federal labor law. So, if Lee Enterprises fired Steve Arney for supporting a union, then Lee Enterprises should have gotten in trouble, right?
Here's what Steve Arney says about that:
"I had to take the severance, because I didn't make enough to save up a bunch of money. So I accepted the severance, so I lost my right to sue. Had I sued, the outcome, at best, two and half years later, the way the system is rigged for the companies right now, I would have got my job back. Two and a half years later. After appeals, and fights, and all kinds of headaches. I would have been a fool not to take the severance. So they can say, 'Well, our hands are clean.' They aren't. They're dirty."
Eldon Smith worked at the Pantagraph as a shortage driver. "I delivered papers to people that did not get their papers," he says. "I had had several comments that I was one of the best shortage drivers that they had ever had."
About two weeks after he marched in a pro-union rally, Smith says, "they called me in and told me I was working too many hours, and they cut my hours back." After cutting his hours again, they told him his job was being eliminated. "There is no question in my mind why my job was eliminated," Smith says.
How will the Employee Free Choice Act change this situation? Anti-union employers will have less freedom to intimidate people - a key reason that anti-union employers oppose the Employee Free Choice Act. Arney says:
"They'll lose a half a year...from the time that we turn in our cards that say our company workers want a union, and then for the next weeks - and then they delay it - for the next months, they cajole, badger, intimidate, fire people...make life miserable for people who are in favor for collective bargaining. So the deck is stacked right now for management, and they want that deck continually stacked for them. They don't care about our secret ballot. They care about their power and their profit."
These are examples of Americans whose basic human rights are being violated today, whose rights would be protected under the Employee Free Choice Act. Tens of millions of private sector workers who don't have union contracts today would benefit, both because they could more easily form unions, and because the threat of unionization would drive up wages and benefits overall.
But suppose you're not a nonsupervisory private sector worker or that you don't believe you'll ever be in a union, or that your working conditions will be directly affected by the prospect that you might join one. Apart from your belief in fairness and in protecting the rights of others, do you have a stake in the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act?
Absolutely you do. If it bothers you that corporations have too much power in Washington, if you want to see the kinds of reforms in America that people hoped for during the Obama campaign, you have a huge stake in the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.