By John A. Ostenburg
Organized labor in America has two major goals during the coming year: (1) to see health care reform enacted by the Congress of the United States, and (2) to see the same body pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).
Anyone in the nation who is not up on the current debate over health care and insurance, must have his/her head stuck firmly in the sand. Although lots of folks seem to lack a comprehensive knowledge of what actually is being debated in Washington, few can be accused of not at least knowing that a debate is going on.
As a result of special interest groups that are more interested in stopping any reform of health care coverage than in promoting it, the public’s knowledge of what is being argued in the halls of government is clouded by false accusations of death panels, socialized medicine, cuts in Medicare, and the like. When folks turn on the television for the evening news, they see video reports of shouting protesters at town hall meetings alleging that President Barack Obama is akin to Adolph Hitler for evening suggesting that the American health care system has problems. The protesters have been convinced by someone that the President wants to force them either to see doctors not of their choosing or to go without medical care at all. Never mind that what he actually wants to do is reduce health insurance costs so each American will be able to afford to see the doctor of his or her choice in future years.
The AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions are working diligently to set the record straight on health care reform. Labor leaders realize that some of the citizens who have been stirred to protest because of the misinformation that’s being spread by the insurance industry and other special interests are retired union members. Many of them have seen their pensions disappear in recent years because of the collapse of companies that formerly employed them, and now they’re being bombarded with propaganda that says their Medicare also is going to go away as a result of the President’s reform efforts. Organized labor has a major task ahead of it in reversing the negative course on which many of its own members have erroneously embarked.
Labor also is putting the heat on legislators it has supported over the years and making it clear that health insurance reform is an issue that will decide what kind of future support will be forthcoming. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka — destined to take over top leadership of the organization from retiring President John Sweeney at the AFL-CIO convention in September — wrote on the Huffington Post blog recently that he intends to put the full force of labor behind only those candidates who show the courage to support a public option as part of insurance reform. "If you’re going to have health insurance reform, you must have a public option in it," he told lawmakers. "If you don’t, don’t expect us to support you."
If the timetable that the White House and congressional leaders currently are holding up in fact is followed, the health care issue should be decided — one way or another — no later than mid-fall. That’s when the major push for passage of EFCA should be hitting federal lawmakers full force.
At present, companies completely control the process on how workers can form a union. Even if 100 percent of the workers at a given company have signed cards indicating their desire to organize, the company can refuse to recognize that action and insist instead that a secret-ballot election be held. What too often happens in the interim period between the employees’ request to form a union and the election that has been scheduled by management is that pressure is put on a number of the workers — including threats that they will lose their jobs or benefits — as a means of influencing the outcome to the vote.
If EFCA were enacted, the National Labor Relations Board would be required to recognize the will of workers when more than 50 percent of them signed cards indicating their desire to organize (a process often referred to as "card-check"). According to the AFL-CIO, surveys have shown that as many as 60 million Americans desire to form unions in their workplaces but presently do not have an opportunity. Organized labor maintains that EFCA will provide those workers with the opportunity they are seeking.
While EFCA is being fought-out on the national level, a Chicago-based organizing campaign among workers is a good example of how companies will spend great sums of money in an effort to stop unionization.
Recently teachers at three Chicago charter schools signed cards to organize as a union. They maintained that they could use card-check as a means of organizing because it is permitted under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act (IELRA). Because the legislation that established charter schools in Illinois refers to them as public schools, and because proponents of that legislation back in 1995 indicated in legislative debate that the charter schools would be under the IELRA, they thought they had a firm case. However, the companies that run the charter schools argued differently; they insisted that they are private employers — even though they receive public funds for their operation — and thus are under the jurisdiction of the NLRB where card-check currently is not permitted. The employers insisted, therefore, that a secret-ballot election was necessary in order to trigger unionization of the teachers.
Fortunately the election that was held a few weeks later overwhelmingly ratified the position previously illustrated by card-check and the teachers presently are negotiating their first contract with their employer. However, in the few weeks before the election, management was able to peel off some of the strongest supporters of the unionization effort by offering special employment deals. They also spent large sums of money on anti-union attorneys in an effort to deny their workers the right to negotiate for salaries and benefits.
If EFCA were in place, the card-check would have been recognized and negotiations on a contract could have begun immediately, without pitting some workers against others and without wasting dollars.
President Obama long has been a supporter of EFCA and has indicated that he will sign the legislation into law if it reaches his desk. The AFL-CIO says that it currently has survey results that show nearly 73 percent of the public in support of EFCA and it thus hopes that will be sufficient to convince a suitable number of legislators to vote for the bill.
Both health care reform and EFCA are important worker issues.
The current process whereby health insurance is a component of employment in most circumstances is problematic for workers because the constant increases in insurance costs eat into any potential salary increases that might otherwise be forthcoming. Furthermore, with the current economic downturn, many workers are losing jobs and thus losing health insurance coverage also. Without genuine reform, the current run-away costs for health care will force increasingly larger numbers of the middle class into the lower class in the years ahead. Meanwhile those presently in the lower economic bracket will see even more devastating conditions than they already experience. The goal of American public policy should be to left up those who are in poverty rather than to push more citizens to that level. Therefore, maintaining the status quo on health care is not an option.
EFCA also is important to workers for many reasons, but especially because of the change currently underway within the American employment structure. When unionization began to become prevalent on the U.S. landscape it was because of the conditions so many families suffered during the Great Depression. Perhaps things will not reach those levels, but the Great Recession currently underway is changing the way millions of Americans are living because they either are unemployed or are underemployed. As the U.S. economy regains its former strength, new job openings will be on the horizon and millions of individuals will be seeking to be hired. If we have learned anything from history, it is that management will not share willingly with its employees the profits that are realized. Collective bargaining, therefore, will be a necessary ingredient in re-establishing a solid working class that is paid adequately and enjoys the benefits that it deserves.
Health care insurance reform and EFCA: two very important goals for organized labor in 2009.
John A. Ostenburg is mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He is the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union. E-mail him at [email protected]. This article is from his blog The Outpost Observer, Copyright © 2009 John Ostenburg, used with permission.