Labor Reform Key to Economic Recovery, Again

Our current economic disaster has sent policy makers scurrying back in time in search of possible remedies. The Great Depression has become a popular stopping point. But to get the history right, the president and Congress need to look beyond tax cuts, deficit spending and public works of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. They need to understand the critical contributions that organized workers made to economic recovery. They need to support the revitalization of the labor movement as a key component of any stimulus package.

Amidst a wave of strikes and labor unrest across the country, Congress in 1935 passed the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), which gave workers the right to organize and bargain collectively with their employers. Millions responded by joining unions that helped secure higher wages, better benefits and real job security. Over the next three decades, members of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFLCIO) enjoyed unprecedented upward mobility and served as the engine of the country’s economic prosperity.

It’s no exaggeration to say that they formed the backbone of the newly expanded postwar American middle class. Yet today this middle class and those who aspire to it are threatened by the worst economic retraction since the 1930s. And once again, American workers are demanding labor law reform that promises to improve not only their fortunes but those of the entire country.

If history is any indication, the Employee Free Choice Act being considered in Congress is as critical to today’s economic recovery as the Wagner Act was to helping lift America out of the Great Depression. Current labor law is broken. Employers hire high-priced consultants who teach them how to intimidate workers and scare them away from joining a union. Managers call workers into private, one-on-one meetings where they chastise them for daring to choose collective representation while simultaneously offering them raises, improved benefits and everything under the sun if they only vote “NO” in a union election.

The Employee Free Choice Act would restore workers’ right to join a union and bargain collectively by vastly simplifying the process so workers can express their desire without corrupt employer-dominated elections and years of illegal stalling. The new law says that workers can join a union by simply signing their name on a card—just like they can get a job, a house, a car or a credit card by signing an application.

The failures of current labor law are particularly noticeable in North Carolina, the least unionized state in the nation. Late last year, for example, several thousand workers at Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel finally succeeded in organizing a union at the world’s largest hog processing plant. Their struggle began 15 years earlier, when the United Food and Commercial Workers asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to oversee a union representation election. The union lost that election and a subsequent round in 1997, but the NLRB found the company guilty of multiple unfair labor practices that intimidated workers and impeded their ability to select a representative of their own choosing. The victory in December 2008 required mediation by an independent arbitrator because neither party trusted the federal government to oversee a fair electoral process.

The Employee Free Choice Act is a critical first step toward guaranteeing American workers’ right to organize for better wages, benefits and working conditions. Just as the Wagner Act helped propel blue collar workers into the ranks of the middle class by the 1950s, so too can the Employee Free Choice Act empower those hit hardest by the current downturn.

These workers in the retail, hospitality, health care and financial service sectors have the most to gain from union representation and the most to contribute to stimulating the economy. Union members’ increased purchasing power, investments in their children’s education, and demand for quality affordable healthcare can help renew the promise of the American dream.

Korstad is the Kevin D. Gorter Associate Professor of Public Policy Studies and History at Duke University’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy and the author of Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South. Krochmal is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Duke. This was first published on March 4, 2009 in the Raleigh News and Observer.