Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #22 August 21, 2001

Wellstone Bill Promotes Worker Rights,
But AFL-CIO Withholds Endorsement

By Harry Kelber

Sen. Paul Wellstone (Dem.-Minn.) has introduced a bill that would clamp down on employers who deny workers their legal rights to choose union representation and get contract protection, but the AFL-CIO is sidestepping the issue.

Wellstone’s Right-to-Organize Act of 2001 (S. 1102) is an attempt to address some of the most serious obstacles under current law to workers’ ability to unionize. In particular, it would amend the National Labor Relations Act to provide labor organizations with the ability to disseminate information about union representation on an equal footing with employers.

Under the proposal, the employer would trigger “equal time” provisions by expressing opinions about unions during working hours or at the worksite. Once the triggering actions occur, the union would be entitled to use whatever means the employer used to distribute information — for example, bulletin boards, mailboxes or worksite meetings — and be allowed access to the worksite to communicate with employees.

S. 1102 would triple the amount of back wages an employer would be required to pay for illegally discharging a worker, who could also sue for punitive damages. To help unions avoid costly, protracted pre-election disputes in which the employer has the advantage, it would require NLRB elections to be held within 14 days after the union produces signed cards from 60% of those in a bargaining unit.

After workers have voted for a union, the bill would also prevent employers from refusing to sign a first contract, an obstructive tactic now used by one out of four employers. It specifies timetables for the two parties to reach an agreement, with binding arbitration if they fail to agree within 90 days.

Wellstone, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training with jurisdiction over the application of the National Labor Relations Act, may hold hearings on the bill early next year.

Although many of labor’s long-standing grievances are addressed forthrightly in the proposed legislation, the AFL-CIO and its affiliated international unions have neither endorsed it nor mentioned it in their publications and statements.

Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s legislative director, told The Labor Educator: “We support the effort to educate the Senate and the public about the problems that workers face when they try to organize a union. Sen. Wellstone’s bill will be helpful in that effort. However, at this point it would be premature to run a grassroots campaign for the Wellstone bill.”

Also hedging their bets were spokespersons for several major unions, who offered similarly lukewarm reactions to the introduction of the bill. No one, including Samuel, could say when or whether the AFL-CIO plans to mount a serious campaign in its behalf.

For several years, the federation has been content with holding mostly ineffectual rallies, largely ignored by the public and the media, intended to show how workers are mistreated when they try to join unions. AFL-CIO leaders keep saying they won’t introduce or endorse legislation like Wellstone’s until the public and a majority in Congress are ready to support it, but they have no timetable in mind and appear reconciled to waiting indefinitely for the “ideal” moment.

Meanwhile, each year about 10,000 workers are fired for trying to join a union. Because our labor laws are so full of holes, unions have a hard time winning representation elections or getting employers to negotiate. And since employers know that labor’s top leaders aren’t very serious about fighting back, they are emboldened to get even tougher on pro-union employees.

The timid AFL-CIO stance on an issue of such supreme importance leaves active union members confused and immobilized, wondering how the labor movement can ever regain its former strength if worker rights aren’t guaranteed and enforced.

Our history tells us that whenever workers make some progress, it’s the result of an uphill, bitter struggle against powerful adversaries, both in and out of the halls of government. As Frederick Douglass wrote in 1849, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” How do you think we won the eight-hour day and the five-day week?

Flowery rhetoric about worker rights can’t — and won’t — protect the average worker who risks his or her livelihood to join a union. When the AFL-CIO leadership drops the ball on labor law reform, it’s the rank-and-file and millions of unorganized workers who take the fall.

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