March 13, 2009 at 1:00 am

James P. Hoffa: Labor Voices

Strengthening unions will rebuild economy

Union workers rally Tuesday for the Employee Free Choice Act, saying corporate interests are pouring money into the battle to defeat legislation making it easier for unions to form. (Stephen Crowley / New York Times)

Multinational corporations and their front groups are launching a furious attack on the Employee Free Choice Act, which was introduced this week in Congress.

Hundreds of corporate lobbyists flew into Washington to make their case. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on anti-union advertising, with much more to come.

Several hundred workers also came to Washington to support Employee Free Choice. At least one worker who was fired because he wanted to join the Teamsters had never flown on an airplane before.

We have a number of allies who support Employee Free Choice, including religious groups, Nobel Prize-winning economists and leading U.S. corporations such as Levi Strauss and American Electric Power. They believe, as we do, that strengthening unions is the way to rebuild America.

There's no doubt in my mind that passing the Employee Free Choice Act would bring about the most significant change for unions in the workplace since the Wagner Act took effect in 1935.

Under the status quo, the corporations get to decide whether there will be a government-supervised election for a union. Under Employee Free Choice, the workers would choose how their votes are counted. The workers could either have a secret-ballot election or majority sign-up, which is also known as card check.

That's important to us. These elections have devolved into union-busting campaigns during which workers are harassed and intimidated. A recent study shows that a pro-union worker is illegally fired in 25 percent of all organizing campaigns for an election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board. We much prefer majority sign-up.

It's important to the multinationals and their front groups that are spending tens -- if not hundreds -- of millions of their shareholders' dollars to oppose Employee Free Choice. They don't want to give up their ability to bully their workers.

They say Employee Free Choice would take away workers' rights to the secret ballot. They argue that the secret ballot is the linchpin of democracy, that it would be somehow un-American to take it away. They claim to care about workers who might be intimidated by a union if their secret ballot is taken away.

Of course, the secret ballot doesn't protect workers from management intimidation. How can it, when union organizers routinely get fired?

It is also untrue that Employee Free Choice takes away the secret ballot. Let me repeat: If the Employee Free Choice Act becomes law, workers could choose to cast their votes in a secret ballot.

Sen. Robert Wagner of New York sponsored the law in 1935 that bears his name. The Wagner Act recognized the right of workers to form unions. Wagner understood that the difference between despotism and democracy is not the secret ballot, but whether workers have the right to bargain collectively.

The corporate-funded front groups opposing Employee Free Choice can't pretend they support collective bargaining. So they claim that expanding unions would be bad for the economy. Just recently a spokesman for one of the front groups called Employee Free Choice "a poison pill for our ailing economy."

Those are the same arguments used by opponents of the Wagner Act. In 1935, Guy Harrington of the National Publisher's Association said supporting the bill "would permanently close the door to recovery."

The U.S. economy recovered after the Wagner Act became law in 1935. If the Employee Free Choice Act becomes law, I am quite confident the U.S. economy will return to health.

History shows that the economy does well when unions are strong. In these dire economic times, I can't think of a better way to restore stability to middle-class families than to strengthen unions.

James P. Hoffa is president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. E-mail comments to letters@detnews.com">letters@detnews.com or fax them to (313) 496-5253.