No, not THAT choice act. The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which unlike the bugaboo pro-abortion bill that still has not been introduced in Congress, is beginning to gain traction as the nation’s economic woes cause everyone to look beyond the fluctuations in the Dow Jones Industrial Average to the systemic problems in the U.S. economy. Among these, the decline in union membership in the past several decades is one of the worst societal trends and the EFCA aims to rectify it.
Critics of EFCA have focused on the card-check system by which employees would be able to form a union as soon as a majority of workers sign cards indicating they want a union to represent them. But, current law actually allows for this procedure already. The problem is that the company, not the workers, decide when and how to hold an election to ratify the card-check system. In practice, the company can use its control over scheduling, access to information at the workplace, and intimidation of union organizers to discourage an affirmative vote. Under EFCA, the workers would decide when and if to hold an election to ratify the check-cards.
EFCA would also put some backbone into the enforcement mechanisms. Penalties for firing workers because they are trying to organize would stiffen. In addition to a $20,000 penalty for each violation of the National Labor Relations Act found to be willful or repetitive, employers would have to pay triple back pay for workers unjustly fired.
Anyone who knows a union organizer can regale you with horror stories about how companies discourage unionization. The power an employer has within the workplace is virtually absolute unless it is challenged and workers, unprotected by unions have little recourse but to get along. Additionally, while excessive profits helped fuel the expectations game on Wall Street with disastrous results, real wages for most workers have fallen. Leveling the playing field for union organizers might help reverse these trends.
Ever since Pope Leo XIII issued his seminal encyclical on social justice Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Church has supported the rights of workers to organize. In our own country, Cardinal Gibbons led the defense of the Knights of Labor in the late nineteenth century and such clerics as Archbishop Hanna, Cardinal John O’Connor, Msgr. George Higgins and Msgr. John A. Ryan were tireless in their support for workers.
Last week, Catholics in Connecticut rightly protested a proposal that would have interfered with the Church’s right to govern itself. But, one legislator, State Senator Andrew Maynard,/lamented the Church’s lack of urgency on other matters: “Everyday, we are up here (at the Capitol) working on health care or helping the poor and social justice issues and nary a word from Catholics but as soon as we touch gay rights or something like this we get inundated with phone calls and e-mails.”
Now is a time for the bishops, clergy and laity to get involved. We Catholics have been disappointed by some of the Obama administration’s positions and pleased with others. If we help get EFCA passed we will have more leverage the next time a decision has to be made about life issues. Pope Pius XI once lamented that the Church “has lost the working class.” It is time to win them back. For the good of the Church and the good of the country, Catholics should support EFCA loudly and clearly.
Michael Sean Winter