The Employee Free Choice Act and Class Struggle Unionism

 Bernie Marcus, former CEO of Home Depot“This is the demise of a civilization…if a retailer has not gotten involved with this; if he has not spent money on this election… he should be shot.” 
– Bernie Marcus, former CEO of Home Depot

Marxists are in favor of every reform that increases the workers’ class consciousness, confidence, political and social power. The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) is a welcome, albeit only partial clearing of the thicket of legal restrictions on workers’ rights to organize themselves into unions.

The Act itself is fairly straightforward. Its primary function is to streamline the recognition process for unionization drives. It also has provisions aimed at curbing the most blatant anti-unionization tactics widely implemented by the bosses.

Under existing labor law, there are two routes workers can take to be legally recognized as being represented by a union. Both processes take place under the supervision of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). One is the card check process, which is simpler and takes place when the majority of workers sign cards agreeing to join the union. The other is the secret ballot, which is held if more than 30 percent of workers in a bargaining union sign statements asking for union representation.  

However, even if a majority signs cards in the card check process, the employer can still demand an election, which is held on company property, thereby restricting union representatives from accessing the site and allowing the employer free reign to intimidate the workers in the run up to the vote. EFCA would remove this obstacle to unionizing; if the majority of workers sign cards, the union would be recognized.  It is also during the election process that the most class conscious workers, in most cases the same workers who initiated the unionization drive, often end up getting singled out and fired by the bosses. A streamlined card check process would to some degree help to curb this kind of abuse.

 Because the current NLRB election process affords the bosses so many legal openings to bust the union before it has even been formed, there is no shortage of opposition against EFCA from the bosses and their media. The primary argument is that EFCA would be “undemocratic,” since workers would “lose their right to the secret ballot vote.” This argument is purely formalistic, as the forced, secret ballot elections were artificially imposed on the labor movement from without and not a demand workers themselves fought for. On the other hand, workers have fought and died for the right to collective bargaining. It is collective bargaining that the bosses oppose, not out of any noble or “democratic” concern, but simply out of concern for their bottom line: profits. Unionized workers have better wages, benefits and conditions, and a union shop means lower profits for the bosses.

While EFCA will open doors for workers hoping to organize, it should be pointed out that the legislation in its current form still gives the bosses an avenue to keep any newly formed union bound to decisions made by a government-appointed arbitration panel (on top of all the other already-existing legal restrictions). Section 3 of the act includes a clause that would bind unions to a two-year contract decided upon by the arbitration panel, after a specified period of time has lapsed in a collective bargaining process. In other words, if the new bargaining unit and the bosses cannot reach an agreement within a certain number of days, the “impartial” government would step in and have the final say.

The organized labor movement can still fight against the imposition of binding arbitration, while supporting EFCA on the whole.  At the same time, we must fight for the repeal of all anti-union laws on the books, including the draconian Taft-Hartley Act, which is a major hurdle for unions, restricting many of the vital tactics of the labor movement with the threat of government intervention: arrests, seizure of union funds, etc.

We must be clear, however, that in and of themselves, laws such as EFCA  do not change the class balance of forces or guarantee improved wages and conditions. It is the actual movement of the classes in struggle that shapes the real relations in society, of which laws are only the legal reflections. In times of turmoil, the capitalist class has time and time again been forced to loosen their control, in order to ameliorate social conflict while defending and preserving their vital interests.

Conversely, workers have moved might and main to improve their conditions. Things we today take for granted, such as the right to unionize and the eight-hour day were only won after bitter struggle. In other words, it is the living activity of and the changes in the class balance of forces within society that determines the outcome of the struggle, which then changes the corresponding legal code. It would be a mistake, therefore, to place too much emphasis on the legal side of the labor movement, which the existing labor leadership is guilty of. For example, statements such as “without EFCA there will be no more labor movement,” are not uncommon from the current leadership.

The global crisis of capitalism, which will deeply affect the U.S. working class, will have a huge polarizing effect on society. Of course, this will not mean an automatic radicalizing of the class;  there will be many ebbs and flows and contradictions in the mass movement. But the layoffs, cut backs, wage freezes, etc. will not simply push the working class forever up against a wall. Eventually, our class will fight back on a massive scale. Therefore, in the face of the economic crisis, it is not at all surprising to for us to see unionization rates rising in the recent period, after decades of decline. While such growth has  been modest and could be reversed as a result of the mass layoffs in many unionized sectors of the economy, it points to the direction things are moving as capitalism enters into a period of unprecedented crisis.

Workers, seeing capitalism unable to maintain, let alone improve standards of living from one generation to the next, are beginning to look beyond individual solutions toward collective ones. Unionization is such a step, as workers in unions still earn, on average, $2.50 more per hour than unorganized workers; 90 percent have access to retirement benefits compared to 61 percent for the unorganized; 91 percent of union workers receive medical coverage compared to 70 percent of the unorganized, and so on. American workers are very pragmatic. Increasing numbers are seeing through the lies spread by the bosses against unionization, and are coming to the conclusion that the best way to get a raise is to unionize.

The Democratic Party, which won a sweeping victory in the presidential election and in many congressional races as well, banked on promises to approve EFCA as part of their effort to secure organized labor’s support. This strategy succeeded, in a large part, because of workers’ hopes for real change. The House of Representatives did pass EFCA back in March of 2008, however, the Senate was unable to come to closure on the legislation.

 Given the emphasis the labor leadership has given to EFCA (who see it as a way of increasing membership and therefore dues income), it would be a very large “bounced check” in the eyes of many workers if it is not passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress and White House. Faced with a growing crisis, many in the Democratic Party and the labor leadership would prefer to grant some concessions in order to vent some of the building pressure, as a means of avoiding a social explosion from below. It is therefore quite possible that EFCA will be passed in the coming period.

But the fundamental character of the Democratic Party remains the same: they do not and cannot represent workers’ interests.  Small concessions here and there do not exempt the fact that historically the Democrats have fostered and used anti-union laws as much as the Republicans. It can be argued that the Democrats set the stage for some of the most anti-union laws including Taft-Hartley. And why is this and other anti-labor legislation still on the books when the Democrats have control of Congress? Decades of failure to repeal anti-labor laws are a clear example of why we need a clean break from the Democrats.

Bitter experience has also entirely confirmed the failure of the so-called “partnership with the bosses” strategy, which has been the perspective of the labor leaders for decades. This perspective is based on the assumption that the capitalist system must be accepted. Therefore, what is good for the capitalist bosses must be good for the workers. The crisis of capitalism is radically shaking this illusion out of millions of workers’ heads. After all, experience shows that quite the opposite is true! This creates an opening for a class struggle perspective in the unions and the need for a political party arising out of the unions. The existing mass organizations of the working class in the U.S. are the unions, which represent millions of workers. A mass party of labor based on the unions, fighting for a socialist program would receive a huge echo and give the U.S. working class a tremendous and much-needed political tool with which they could begin to change society.

Many workers are beginning to instinctively develop a class struggle outlook. The hopes behind EFCA reflect this. That instinct needs to be developed into a clear, worked-out class struggle perspective and program of action. Our demands must build a bridge between partial reforms like EFCA, which provide openings for the working class, and a more advanced program of revolutionary change. Ultimately, the working class must come to power, removing the capitalists from the driver’s seat of society.

Contact the WIL if you would like to help develop and fight for this perspective.

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