“It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;
Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;
But the union makes us strong.” – From “Solidarity Forever,” by Ralph Chaplin
Today is May 1st, International Worker’s Day in most of the world. It is also the 121st anniversary of the Haymarket Square riots in Chicago, which culminated three days later in the deaths of seven police officers in a bombing. Although there is virtually no evidence as to what happened during the bombing or where the bomb originated, four American radicals were executed in connection with the incident. Their martyrdoms at the hands of a society demanding scapegoats and the preceding demonstration became the basis for a global holiday for labor, International Worker’s Day.
Anarchists, socialists, communists, social democrats, and labor supporters around the world will march today with laborers to call for greater rights for workers. Last year, in one of the only times the holiday was marked in the United States, immigrant rights activists held “Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes,” a series of protests and abstinence from work for immigrants. The event, designed to demonstrate the necessity of immigrant labor in America, helped to thwart strict immigration legislation that was being debated in Congress at the time.
It seems timely to discuss one of the most important pieces of labor legislation in recent history in today’s post: The Employee Free Choice Act, which recently passed in the House and is headed to the Senate for deliberations. It will no doubt continue to face the opposition of anti-union corporations and lobbyist organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Center for Union Facts.
The Act would establish a number of new protections for organized labor and union activists in the workplace. In addition to punishing employers who deny contracts to newly-organized unions, intimidate workers by forcing them to listen to anti-union messaging, and refuse to recognize legitimate union elections, the bill establishes alternative measures for forming unions. Currently, all unionization is done when one-third of workers request a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-supervised election. This system allows anti-union employers to concentrate their efforts at disrupting union activities around a single event: the election. Since employers have far more access to their employees than unions do, the election process is rarely free and fair when an employer opposes unionization.
The new legislation does not remove the secret ballot elections process. It does provide an alternative, however: the majority sign-up. If a simple majority of workers sign union cards, then the union can send the cards to the NLRB for authorization. Should the federal government find the cards to be in order, then the company must recognize the union as the representative of its employees. This new system will allow workers to join unions at their own pace and without the intimidation of their employers. It will also continue to guarantee elections for any workplace where workers request one.
Unions are a critical protection for the working class. Collective representation is the way that workers make their voices heard at the negotiating tables. Fair wages, safe working conditions, and protections for employees are all basic rights that all workers deserve. Without labor, there would be no progress for society. It is only right and proper that workers have the right to organize and demand better conditions. People must come before profits, and unions are one of the ways that corporate power is still subjected to the base it rests on: the working class.
It is tragic that the union movement has declined in recent years, especially in the face of corporate intimidation and unfair practices on the part of employers. The Employee Free Choice Act will secure the basic right to organize for millions of American workers. It will ensure that the promises of democracy for labor and a voice in the workplace will not go unfulfilled. The rights of the workers who make society possible should always come before greed and executive profit.