This Is Why We Need the Employee Free Choice Act

Robert Eshelman at Alternet reports that some employers are using the dire and worsening unemployment situation as a weapon against workers who are terrified of losing their jobs:

The mainstream media has generally sketched a picture of a labor market in which, under the pressure of an economic meltdown, workers succumb to two types of downsizing. In one, a fierce recession forces businesses, desperate to cut costs in terrible times, to lay off workers. They, in turn, face grim prospects for gainful employment elsewhere. In a kinder, gentler version of the same, employers, desperate to cut costs in terrible times, offer — or sometimes force workers to take — “furloughs,” salary cuts, union give-backs, four-day work weeks, or un-paid holidays rather than axing large numbers of them.

In this case, tough as it may be, workers benefit, retaining at least some of their income, while businesses wait out the recession. In both cases, businesses are largely depicted as unenthusiastic dispensers of pink-slips. Managers and bosses are just facing up to an unpalatable reality and unavoidable pressures imposed on them by the worst economic moment in recent memory.

A visit to a job center is hardly a scientific survey. The experiences of Juanita and Chris, along with those of other unemployed people I spent time with while in Philadelphia, may be purely anecdotal evidence. But they do raise questions about a subject of no small importance, and it’s not one you’re likely to read about in your daily paper — not yet anyway. If a deepening recession weighs down and threatens businesses, some of those businesses are undoubtedly also making convenient use of the times to do things they might have wanted to do, but were unable to do in better conditions.

In some cases, under the guise of “recession” pressure, they may be waging a secret war against their own workers, using even the most innocuous transgressions of work-place rules as the trigger for firings — and so, of course, putting the fear of god into those who remain. In this way, company payrolls are not only being reduced by mass layoffs, but workers are being squeezed for ever greater productivity in return for lower wages, worse hours, and less benefits. The weapon of choice is the specter of unemployment, a kind of death by a thousand (or a million) cuts.

It’s hard living all the time with a sword of Damocles over your head.

Someone I interviewed prior to my job center visit described her reaction when she heard that her company had recently closed a plant in the Midwest: “The first thing I thought, and I felt bad for thinking it,” she recalled, somewhat sheepishly, “was that means more work for us — at least for the time being.”

Her comment speaks volumes, as does her request not to be identified. Who needs union busters, patrolling shop-stewards, or legions of high-paid lawyers fighting wage and hours claims when a worker is so anxious about job security that she responds positively to the laying off of those she imagines as potential competitors? When employees police their own behavior for fear of the axe — monitoring their time checking email or using the bathroom — bad times distinctly have an upside for management.

In this job environment, it’s easy to turn not just on others, but on yourself. Reflecting on what she will do without a job and unemployment benefits, Juanita wonders if the problem isn’t the economy, but the choices she made in life. “I left home when I was sixteen and lived in my own places, had my children, and got married,” she says nervously, continually folding and refolding a local newspaper. “I should have gone to school and did a lot more things to make myself more marketable earlier in life. Now I’m left having to start over again.”

How can you not feel for this woman, who blames herself because she came to a fork in the road when she was 16 and chose one path over the other, when she should have known that over 20 years later she would be fired for a trivial reason in the worst economy since the 1930s? And how can one overstate the advantage that accrues to employers from a workforce as cowed and frightened as this? Is it any surprise that the world of business and management would fight any measure that might make it easier for their employees to form unions?

A look at corporate opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), whose passage in Congress is a central demand of organized labor, offers a glimpse of how persistently companies seek to disadvantage their workers. EFCA would allow workers to form a union when a majority of them sign union cards in a given workplace. “Card check,” as it is frequently called, enables them to organize unions without the need for an election. In a November column surveying the business elite’s response to the Act, Wall Street Journal op-ed columnist Thomas Frank wrote: “Card check is about power. Management has it, workers don’t, and business doesn’t want that to change.”

2 Responses to “This Is Why We Need the Employee Free Choice Act”

  1. Chief says:

    “How can you not feel for this woman, who blames herself because she came to a fork in the road when she was 16 and chose one path over the other, when she should have known that over 20 years later she would be fired for a trivial reason in the worst economy since the 1930s?”

    Sometimes, no amount of planning can prepare one for the future. At a few times in my life, when I was a whole lot younger, I made decisions that I had no way of knowing how profound they would be forty plus years later. In 1962, with a pregnant wife and no idea how to market any job skills I might have, I re-enlisted for six years in the U.S. Navy. I was derided by my peers. I was called “a lifer.” I didn’t spend 21 years in the Navy out of ‘patriotism.’ It was a way to provide for my family. If I had been single in 1962, I would not have re-enlisted.

    In high school in the 1950s, my father wanted me to follow in his footsteps and be a printer. He was a journeyman member of the International Typographical Union for his whole working life. I did not like the dark, dank places he worked and I did not like the smell of printer’s ink. At the time, late fifties, printers were at the top of the union scale as far a wages were concerned.

    It turned out to be a wise move because by 1981 the union retirement fund was broke. There was no need for printers with the advent of computers and word processing software.

    I was lucky.

  2. mjB says:

    The Employee Free Choice Act should be called “The Employee Right For Intimidation” act!



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