ECFA debate on Democracy Now!

Democracy Now! had a 15-minute long debate on the Employee Free Choice Act between Stewart Acuff of the AFL-CIO and James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation. You can watch the full debate here.

Business, Labor Groups Clash Over Legislation to Ease Workers’ Barriers to Forming Unions

A fierce battle is brewing between labor unions and business groups over the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to form a union. If passed, the Employee Free Choice Act would amend the National Labor Relations Act to allow workers to form a union if a majority of them signed a card or petition. We host a debate between Stewart Acuff of the AFL-CIO and James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation.

I know DN! is a very labor-friendly environment, but the debate wasn’t even close, Acuff flat out clobbered poor Mr. Sherk. While Mr. Acuff made reasoned explanations and cited numerous relevant statistics, poor Mr. Sherk just kept clinging to his two favorite talking points: 1. ECFA eliminates the worker’s right to a secret ballot election (which is untrue). 2. ECFA will allow government bureaucrats to “parachute in” and force business-killing 2-year labor contracts down management’s throat.

I usually just podcast Democracy Now! and listen to it at work, but today I watched the TV broadcast too, and on it Acuff wins even more points for likeability, given that James Sherk looks every bit the haughty, over privileged, ivy league smart but no wisdom or common sense, lily-white, naval-gazing, so-and-so you’d expect to work for the Heritage Foundation. Acuff just looks like a pretty average Joe.

Here are both sides’ “opening salvos” on the con and pro of EFCA (emphasis mine):

JAMES SHERK: Because this is a bill that takes away employees’ choice. Read the text of the bill. There’s nothing in there about workers having a choice between a secret ballot or simply being forced to sign publicly. Workers have, if this is passed, no ability to call for a secret ballot election. That hand—that would be entirely in the control of union organizers. And they’ve made it clear in their public statements that they have no intention of doing that.

And on top of that—the secret ballot part is outrageous, and it’s gotten most of the attention, but after that happened, at newly organized companies, you’d have the government imposing contracts, the government writing contracts that workers and business would have to live with. They couldn’t appeal. Workers wouldn’t have the right to vote or strike. And government bureaucrats don’t have the expertise to run a company, in even the best economic times. But in times like this, where it’s hard enough for businesses and workers with every incentive to keep the company going, to stay afloat, to be stuck with a contract that a government bureaucrat who knew nothing about the business to impose, you’d see thousands of businesses going under and tens of thousands of workers losing their job. Government control is not the way to get businesses back on track.

AMY GOODMAN: Stewart Acuff of the AFL-CIO?

STEWART ACUFF: Thank you, Amy. It’s good to be with you and Juan.

Let me start by saying we’ve had thirty years of failed trickle-down economics brought to you by the Heritage Foundation and James’s associates there. It’s hard for me to believe he can speak with a straight face, seeing what thirty years of free market fundamentalism has done to us.

The Employee Free Choice Act is very important, because those thirty years have led to flat wages and declining wages. The average wage of the average worker in America today is lower than it was in 1973, because of the corporate and right-wing assault on labor unions and workers. So the Employee Free Choice Act simply will restore in the private sector the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively. Workers will still be able to seek and get a secret ballot election, if they want, to simply by 30 percent or 40 or 45 percent of the workers in the workplace signing a card and/or a petition and going down to the National Labor Relations Board and asking for an election, and election will be granted, or signing 50 percent plus one and going down and applying for certification, and certification will be granted. Both methods have been legal since 1935. It’s just that today, the employer decides which method is used. We want to change it for the worker to decide.

And the problem is, in that six-week period between when workers apply for an election and get an election, employers routinely—it’s now a routine part of a corrupt corporate culture—run campaigns of terror, intimidation, firings, retaliation against workers who support the union. Last year, 31,000 workers, according to the National Labor Relations Board, were retaliated against for legally protected union activity. And so, folks like James make up a problem to cover a real problem. There is no union intimidation. There’s only been forty-two cases in the history of the Board—that’s seventy-four years—while last year 31,000 workers were intimidated by their employer for legally protected union activity.

On the arbitration—

JAMES SHERK: That’s—

STEWART ACUFF: I’m sorry, Amy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: No, go ahead. Finish your point.

STEWART ACUFF: On the arbitration, if workers and their employer are making steps and progress towards a first contract, they can mutually agree to extend the time period from the current 120 days under the bill for as long as it takes to get a contract. The aim here is not to arbitrate contracts, but it’s to give employers and corporations a real incentive to reach a first contract. One company, the largest company in cable television, Comcast Cable, routinely awards their non-union workers higher wages than their union workers, as a policy. And so, we’ve got to stop this business where workers can wait twelve years to get a first contract, six years to get a first contract, after they form their union. And we do need to impose real penalties on employers who violate the law. I don’t know of another federal law where there is not real penalties for employers who violate the law, and that’s why the Employee Free Choice Act would provide real penalties for employers who violate the law.

Stylistically and substantively Mr. Sherk is overmatched from the word go. Note his hyperbolic tone and insistence on absolutes. There will be no choice for workers, and matters will be “entirely in the control of union organizers.” There will be no choice for management–government will squash their fragile businesses like bugs. Union Bad, Business Good. Government Bad, Business Good.

Several times James Sherk made reference to government types “parachuting in” and hammering out a contract–one that in Mr. Sherk’s view would kill the business.

JAMES SHERK: . . .And then, with the government stepping in, no government bureaucrat is in a position to run your company, to run your job, to tell you what your wages should be, what your benefits should be, what your work assignments should be, what promotion opportunities you should have, what equipment your company should use to do the job. They’re unaccountable. They don’t know. They’re just being parachuted in there. Government planning is not a recipe for economic health.

JAMES SHERK:
It’s not going to help any business to have the government come in, to have a bureaucrat parachuted in and simply impose a business plan on the company.

And I kept scratching my head over Sherk’s talking point about government bureaucrats “parachuting in” to write a 2-year labor contract. Regarding contract negotiations, EFCA allows a company 120 days (4 months) to agree to a contract with the union–plenty of time if they are bargaining in good faith–before the NLRB would get involved. As far as “parachuting in” goes, I think he meant for “parachute in” to mean “drop out of sky”–as in arrive in a situation unprepared (I guess), but I took it completely another way. When I think of someone “parachuting in” I immediately think of. . .paratroopers–specifically WWII 82nd Airborne “Screaming Eagle” paratroopers. These are the guys who flat out GOT THINGS DONE (and still GET THINGS DONE to this day). Read “A Bridge Too Far” and “The Longest Day” by Cornelius Ryan or “Those Devils in Baggy Pants” by Ross S. Carter to see what I mean. “Parachuting in” for those brave young men meant getting behind enemy lines and causing trouble, holding bridges or destroying them, reinforcing positions about to be overrun, and always fighting against impossible odds until help arrived, until the battle was won, or until you were dead, captured, or too injured to fight on.

I’m sure someone else probably crafted Mr. Sherk’s words and message–most likely someone to whom military service and real heroism are alien things. Regardless, I hope they keep up this sort of approach, because I think that will make passage of ECFA that much easier.

Full transcript of EFCA debate from Democracy Now! 3/13/2009 here.

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