The Employee Free Choice Act, Class Conditions, and Class Power

Tom Levy shares his thoughts on the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposed bill (since killed)that would have made it easier for U.S. workers to unionize under labor law.

Not since Ronald Reagan and the Air Traffic Controllers strike has America seen such debate on the future of organized labor. Although the worsening recession, stagnant (and often decreasing) wages, and the victory at Republic Windows have all contributed to this growing dialogue, the main impetus for such discussion has been the election of Barrack Obama and his support for the bill known as the Employee Free Choice Act.

If it passes, the EFCA will do a number of things. First it will give legal backing to card-check union elections. Second, it will increase the penalties when bosses fire union supporters. Finally, in the event workers choose to go union, the EFCA will allow either party—the company or the union—to call in government arbitrators to impose a contract.

At first glance, the EFCA may appear to be labor’s savior. After all, the big business unions have been trying to secure legislation such as this for years and are widely singing the EFCA’s praises. The bosses, on the other hand, are poised to spend millions on a PR campaign opposing the bill. Just recently a high-profile anti-union lobbyist was quoted warning industry executives that the surge in unionization the EFCA could bring would lead to the “demise of a civilization.” In light of such sentiments, let us, as committed unionists, examine the implications of the EFCA.

Surely, a card check election is a much fairer way for workers to secure a collective bargaining agreement. Instead of elections being held on company property where the boss can coerce, intimidate, and fire union supporters, in a card-check election workers simply sign a card authorizing a union to act as their bargaining agent. If 50%+1 of workers sign, the company is legally obligated to recognize the union. Likewise, increased penalties against union-busting will make the bosses a bit more law-abiding and offer increased protection to union supporters. Finally, a collective bargaining contract—even one imposed by the government—will improve the wages and conditions of workers. By removing these barriers to organizing, the EFCA could potentially usher in an era of widespread unionization. This state of affairs will put upward pressure on wages and improve the lot of even non-union workers. In the process, the unacceptable and wholly immoral gulf between the rich and the poor will be diminished. In these ways, the EFCA will not only increase the numbers of organized labor, but will improve the class conditions of America’s workers.

However, beyond class conditions, there is another angle we must consider. That, my brothers and sisters, is class power. Of the many lessons history has taught the working class, few are as important as this one simple truth: anytime the government offers what appears to be a concession to unions, it comes at the expense of the ability of workers to act in a militant, independent manner. Keeping this in mind, let us re-examine the EFCA.

First, the EFCA assumes contracts and elections (of any sort) are the only means of establishing a union in a given shop. Gone is the time when workers announced the formation of a union with a recognition strike. Government injunctions and feeble union leadership put a stop to that long ago. Along much the same lines, workers have been systematically prevented from enforcing union work rules and remedying grievances through “quickie strikes.” Nearly all union contracts now contain a “no strike clause” that prohibits strikes during the life of the contract. Instead of the union being the vehicle of workers’ collective action, the union becomes responsible for policing worker militancy. It is a sad fact, but many much needed strikes have been stopped by union officials more concerned with protecting their own status as guardians of the contract than with improving the conditions of their membership.

Finally, we must consider the implications of government arbitration. To begin, arbitration is inherently anti-democratic. Workers will not have the ability to vote on an arbitrated contract. Worse yet, arbitrators will almost inevitably include no-strike clauses and “management rights clauses” in contracts. Management rights clauses prohibit workers from taking part in decisions of who to hire and fire, how and where a company invests profits, and other such crucial business activities. Government arbitration, combined with no-strike and management rights clauses, severely limits the ability of unions to function as democratic, worker-run social institutions. Instead, under the provisions of the EFCA, service unionism will become the legally enforced norm.

No doubt, under the EFCA union workers will make higher wages, receive better benefits, more vacation time, and work under better conditions. However, this will come at the expense of class power. Put another way, the EFCA will remove from workers their autonomy vis-à-vis the capitalist state. Workers will be legally prevented from controlling their own unions. Union bureaucrats, government arbitrators, contract lawyers, and politicians will stand between workers and their ability to use direct action and solidarity to secure better wages and conditions.

Instead of politicians and union bureaucrats, workers can and should take matters into their own hands. We should use direct action techniques such as refusing to cross picket lines, engaging in “go slows,” boycotting non-union and scab goods, occupying our workplaces, holding mass pickets, and above all, going on strike. In such ways we act as a class and rely only on class solidarity to make such actions successful. Of course, it goes without saying that increased class power will inevitably lead to improved class conditions. By using direct action and solidarity we make sure we achieve better class conditions and that we do so on our own terms.

The IWW should not oppose the EFCA, but we should certainly not campaign for it either. Instead, we should use the opportunity opened by the EFCA to educate our fellow workers on the need for class power. Our ability to act independently, democratically, and autonomously as a class will see America’s workers achieve far more than we ever could through the EFCA. Even more than material gains, however, only by exercising class power can workers begin creating a society that always puts human need first.

Originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of the Industrial Worker