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Labor: A Free Choice To Organize

Just as the Senate began debate yesterday on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), thousands of union members joined with progressives and key lawmakers to express their hopes of passing a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize.

June 20, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Nico Pitney, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, and Matt Corley
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LABOR

A Free Choice To Organize

Just as the Senate began debate yesterday on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), thousands of union members joined with progressives and key lawmakers to express their hopes of passing a bill that would make it easier for workers to organize. “Under current law, an employer can insist on a secret-ballot election,” even after a majority of employees express their desire to organize. The proposed law “would give employees at a workplace the right to unionize as soon as a majority signed cards saying they wanted to do so.” In early March, the House issued its strong support for the legislation, passing the bill with a 241-185 vote. The measure is expected to face a more difficult course in the Senate, where it has so far picked up 47 co-sponsors. “Business groups have mounted a big fight against the bill, with one organization, the Center for Union Facts, spending $500,000 on newspaper and broadcast advertisements this week alone.” Senate conservatives and “their business allies are predicting that that they can prevent even an up-or-down vote on the measure.” A vote is expected to take place tomorrow in the Senate to stave off the right wing’s efforts. Take a moment to e-mail your senators and urge them to vote for the Employee Free Choice Act (S. 1041). 

WHY THE LEGISLATION IS NEEDED: The majority sign-up method proposed by the EFCA offers a fairer path for workers to unionize because employees “often feel intimidated by their employers during unionization drives and so are fearful of losing their jobs.” Employers illegally fire employees for union activity in “more than one-quarter of all organizing efforts.” Approximately half of employers illegally threaten to close or relocate the business if workers elect to form a union. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service found that even when unions win representation elections, 45 percent of the time they fail to secure contracts from employers. During the course of union drives, employers maintain a disproportionate share of access to the media and to the voters, thus allowing the individuals with the most direct control over hiring and firing decisions to tell “their subordinates in no uncertain terms why a union would be bad for them.” Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson writes today, “This kind of hardball resistance to American workers’ attempts to unionize, combined with the decline of manufacturing, has achieved catastrophic success,” leading to the dwindling of America’s once-vibrant middle class.

THE UNION DIFFERENCE: Expressing his support for the legislation, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) said yesterday, “You know what the Employee Free Choice Act will mean: higher wages. Better health insurance. Safer working conditions. And by the way, we all know that employees who receive a fair standard of living are more productive. This is a win-win for employers and employees alike.” The statistics plainly make the case. When comparing wages alone, union workers on average make 30 percent more. Union workers are more likely to have health care; “in March 2006, 80 percent of union workers in the private sector had jobs with employer-provided health insurance, compared with only 49 percent of nonunion workers.” Not only would implementation of the act lead to better jobs, but it would also reduce poverty, as noted in a recent report published by the Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty. While corporate profits and productivity have been rising since 2001, inequality has also reached alarming levels. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), a long-time champion of workers’ rights, explained that one way “to see that employees get their fair share is to give them a stronger voice.” 

CONSERVATIVE CANARD: To generate opposition to the EFCA, conservatives have been spouting the canard that the legislation will strip workers of their right to a secret ballot. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), who opposes EFCA, argued, “This act takes away the right to a secret ballot.” In a similar vein, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao writes today in the Wall Street Journal, “It is incredible that interest groups who say they are advocates for workers are striving to end workers’ opportunity to have private union elections.” In reality, the EFCA does not abolish elections. It merely shifts the balance of the playing field — from one that is currently tilted overwhelmingly in favor of employers who dictate whether employees can organize, to a process that is instead employee-driven. “Under the proposed legislation, workers get to choose the union formation process — elections or majority sign-up. What the Employee Free Choice Act does prevent is an employer manipulating the flawed system to influence the election outcome.” The myths propagated by the right have prompted some Democrats, including Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), to withhold their support for the bill.

UNDER THE RADAR

HUMAN RIGHTS — CIA GENERAL COUNSEL NOMINEE STANDS BY HIS APPROVAL OF TORTURE: Yesterday, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a confirmation hearing for John Rizzo, President Bush’s nominee to become the CIA’s general counsel. Rizzo has served as an acting general counsel “off and on for the past six years, serving without Senate confirmation.” During his tenure, the CIA has engaged in a wide variety of highly questionable and potentially illegal interrogation practices. In 2002, Rizzo approved a memo, drafted by then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, that stretched the definition of torture in order to make such behavior permissible in the course of an interrogation. To qualify as torture, the Bybee memo concluded, physical pain must be “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Rizzo at the hearing, “Do you think you should have objected at the time [to the Bybee definition of torture]?” Rizzo answered, “I honestly — I can’t say I should have objected at the time,” to which Wyden replied, “I think that’s unfortunate because it seems to me that language on a very straightforward reading is over the line. And that’s what I think all of us wanted to hear — is that you wish you had objected.” Also during the hearing, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) asked Rizzo “whether we’ve ever rendered detainees to countries which use torture.” Rizzo said that “it’s difficult to give a yes or no answer” in a public hearing and asked that he provide an answer in closed session. Levin noted that in Dec. 2005, Bush said that “we do not render to countries that use torture.” Furthermore, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) “said she will have a difficult time approving Rizzo’s nomination, if he was part of the legal foundation for the government’s detention program” and added, “I believe one of the reasons we are so hated abroad is because we appear to be hypocrites. … We say one thing and practice another.”

ETHICS — FBI PROBE FOCUSES ON SEN. STEVENS: The FBI recently questioned former staffers to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) as part of their investigation into the Veco Corp., “an Alaska-based oil field services and engineering company” currently under investigation for doling out “$400,000 worth of bribes…to state lawmakers in exchange for favorable energy legislation.” Earlier this year, former Veco director Bill J. Allen and “another Veco executive pleaded guilty to bribing state legislators primarily to secure the passage of tax legislation creating a natural gas pipeline that could have yielded Veco billions of dollars in revenue.” The investigation has “also led to federal indictments against one current and two former Republican members of the Alaska House of Representatives.” Stevens is under “close public scrutiny” because of his financial connections to the company, its involvement in the remodeling of his Anchorage residence, and the FBI’s raid of the offices of Stevens’ son, former Alaska Senate President Ben Stevens, as part of an ongoing corruption probe. Last year, the FBI “issued subpoenas…to contractors who had performed work” on Stevens’s house, and the senator recently disclosed that he has been ordered to “preserve records” related to the investigation. According to federal election records, Veco and its chief executives have “contributed more than $50,000 to political and campaign committees controlled by Stevens” and “in 2005 and 2006 alone, Allen and other Veco executives gave Stevens-affiliated election committees $37,000.”

HUMAN RIGHTS — IRAQ DEEPENDING WORLD’S REFUGEE CRISIS: Today is World Refugee Day, a day to raise awareness about the “40 million people worldwide” who have fled “violence, persecution…injustice, exclusion, environmental pressures, [and] competition for scarce resources.” “For years we’ve seen a reduction in the numbers of refugees,” said the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees. But “in the last 12 months the numbers of refugees have been increasing.” In fact, “last year was one of the worst on record for refugees and the crisis is deepening” in 2007. According to the United Nations, the “conflict in Iraq was largely responsible for the rise.” An estimated two million Iraqis are internally displaced, and around 1.5 million Iraqis are “living as refugees in other countries, mostly neighboring Syria and Jordan,” resulting in “the Middle East’s largest refugee crisis since the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948.” While Iraqi refugees may have escaped the sectarian bloodshed of their homeland, “many refugees live in conditions of acute poverty.” The influx of refugees has severely strained the “limited” social service resources of the Syrian and Jordanian governments, leading to “soaring rents, overcrowded schools, rising crime and health problems.” Refugees are becoming increasingly desperate; “many girls and women in ‘severe need’ turn to prostitution” in order to support their families. As countries in the Middle East bear the brunt of the refugee crisis, only one Iraqi refugee was resettled in the United States in April of 2007. While the State Department has promised to resettle 7,000 refugees in the United States in 2007, it “will be lucky to match last year’s total of 202” resettled Iraqis. The minuscule number of resettled Iraqis, aid officials say, shows that “the United States and other Western nations are focused on reconstructing Iraq while ignoring the war’s human fallout.”

THINK FAST

President Bush will issue the third veto of his presidency today, killing a bill “that would have eased restraints on federally funded embryonic stem cell research — work that supporters say holds promise for fighting disease.”

“The Justice Department has opted out of at least 10 whistle-blower lawsuits alleging fraud and corruption in government reconstruction and security contracts in Iraq, and has spent years investigating additional fraud cases but has yet to try to recover any money.”

“At least 40 percent of State Department diplomats who have served in danger zones suffer some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” an American Foreign Service Association official told Congress yesterday. “The State Department has provided limited help for diplomats under duress,” including dispatching just two psychiatrists to Iraq. 

“Six detainees were transferred this week out of the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, including one detainee who was returned to Tunisian authorities over the objections of his attorneys amid fears that he will be tortured by a government known for human rights violations.”

Canon Electronics, Nike, and Unilever “topped a list rating climate-friendly companies” released yesterday, while Jones Apparel Group, CBS, Burger King, Darden Restaurants, Wendy’s International and Amazon.com tied for last. Also, Google announced yesterday that it will be carbon neutral by 2008.

The ACLU “sued the U.S. government on Tuesday seeking to end what it said was a policy of drugging some immigrants facing deportation proceedings.” The suit alleges that two immigrants were forcibly injected with “powerful psychotropic drugs” in violation of the law.

And finally: At yesterday’s annual congressional picnic, “President Bush and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were arm in arm,” “Karl Rove worked the crowd,” and “White House Press Secretary Tony Snow played the flute.” “I thank Tony Snow and his bunch of mediocre musicians…uh, great musicians,” said Bush, who enjoyed “the chance to zing his press secretary.”

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GOOD NEWS

Backed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D), the New York State Assembly yesterday approved legislation to legalize same-sex marriage, marking only the “second time that a legislative body in America has passed such a law.”

STATE WATCH

CALIFORNIA: State legislators and top officials, already among the nation’s highest paid, receive another pay increase.

TEXAS: Extension of the border fence may sever the daily routines for many Texans.

ECONOMY: Come July 24, “30 states will require employers to pay hourly workers more than federal law requires.”

CIVIL RIGHTS: “States that have banned gay marriage are beginning to revoke the benefits of domestic partners of public employees.”

BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: White House spokesman Tony Snow responds to the potentially illegal use of political e-mail accounts: Bill Clinton did it too.

THE BLOTTER: Worsening violence is forcing pregnant Iraqi women to obtain illegal abortions “because they are unable to get medical care for themselves and their unborn” children.

CARPETBAGGER REPORT: Defending the use of torture, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia asks, “Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?”

WAR ROOM: White House spokesman Tony Snow explains that President Bush does not “bind people’s hands behind their back and throw them from rooftops.”

DAILY GRILL

“Mohamed Atta, and several other 9/11 hijackers were in the United States illegally.”
— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a new anti-immigration advertisement

VERSUS

“All of the 19 men who hijacked planes on September 11th, including Atta, entered the United States on a tourist or student visa, issued by the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, according to the 9/11 Commission.”
— ABC News, 6/19/07