Big business is bitterly resisting a legislative push by organised labour to make it easier to unionise.
Resisting the push to unionise
NEW YORK // Big business is bitterly resisting a legislative push by organised labour to make it easier to unionise, but labour officials point out that some of the proposed changes have been in place for more than 20 years. Unions are hoping Congress will pass a bill known as the Employee Free Choice Act, which would extend "card check" measures across the country, and strengthen the movement, which has weakened since its heyday 60 years ago. Business groups are firmly opposed and it remains unclear if a majority can be found in the Senate.
If the measure is passed, employees would be allowed to sign cards to join a union instead of holding secret ballot elections. The card check system is already in place in Las Vegas. D Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Union in Las Vegas, pointed to a deal made for workers at CityCentre, an entertainment complex worth US$8.5 billion (Dh31bn) scheduled for completion by the end of this year by Dubai World, the emirate's investment arm, and MGM Mirage, the casino operator.
"CityCentre has a collective bargaining agreement, which has raised the average wage to $15 an hour, provides health care, pension and other benefits, and allows all the workers - from housekeepers to cashiers - to take part in the Las Vegas dream," he said. "In talks with industry over the last 20 years, we explained we could either work in partnership or have an antagonistic relationship, which doesn't work in an industry where the focus is overwhelmingly on customer service." The Culinary Union's parent union is Unite Here, which has about 400,000 members nationwide. In contract talks with CityCentre two years ago, Culinary secured organising rights for half of the development's 12,000 employees.
Barack Obama supported the card check act when he was a senator, but as president he has a crowded and controversial legislative agenda that includes trying to pull the country out of recession. However, he said this year: "I don't buy the argument that providing workers with collective-bargaining rights somehow weakens the economy or worsens the business environment. If you've got workers who have decent pay and benefits, they're also customers for business."
Union membership has steadily fallen since the 1940s, along with the decline in manufacturing, to only about 12.4 per cent of the total US workforce. The rate is 7.5 per cent, down from 25 per cent in the 1980s, within the private sector, which is dominated by service industries. Human Rights Watch, the New York-based activist group, said in a report this year that US labour laws facilitate abuse and violate international standards.
"Weak US labour law effectively denies millions of workers the right to form a union and bargain collectively," said Carol Pier, a senior labour rights and trade researcher for HRW. "Congress should bring worker protections closer to international standards by passing the Employee Free Choice Act." The report said current rules allow employers to force workers to attend anti-union meetings during work time and prevent union representatives from holding parallel meetings. "Union elections are rife with employer coercion and mock the notion of fair, democratic voting," Ms Pier said.
But Orrin Hatch, a Republican senator from Utah, told a meeting of like-minded opponents at the US Chamber of Commerce in April that the proposed law "should be called the Employee Coercion Act of 2009". Companies believe workers would be subject to intimidation by unions trying to boost their membership. In one example, it was reported that company executives in Las Vegas were angered by a flier distributed a couple of years ago that depicted MGM Mirage and CityCentre as a Godzilla-like lizard rampaging through the city.
Internecine battles over power and control among and within different unions have also done little to endear themselves to a wider audience. Unite Here has been rife with dissent, threatening to break the group into two. The union was formed five years ago by the merger of two unions, one mostly representing apparel workers and the other, hotel workers. Bruce Raynor, Unite Here's general president, resigned last month and accused opponents of stealing office files and hiring a private investigator, but the allegations were strenuously denied.
Mr Taylor said Mr Raynor knew he would not have won re-election at a convention at the end of this month. "He was more interested in keeping control than in the democratic process," he said. Although congressional approval of the Employee Free Choice Act looks shaky, union leaders have been heartened by other measures pushed through by Mr Obama that reversed policies by George W Bush, his predecessor.
Mr Obama has given workers greater scope to reverse pay discrimination and more resources to enforce health, safety and wage laws. He is also facing a fierce fight over healthcare reform. "The myth of unbridled, laissez-faire capitalism left everybody worse off and income inequality is the highest since the 1920s," Mr Taylor said. "In a situation where the labour movement represents barely more than 10 per cent of workers, it would be helpful to speak with one voice, but the American labour movement has a whole spectrum of views."