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@Odds | Employee Free Choice Act | Andy Stern

Unions can help close the income gap

By Andy Stern
January 18, 2009
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THE AMERICAN DREAM and jobs that create a secure and stable middle-class life are drifting further out of reach for many Americans.

Despite working harder than ever, the average family spent about $4,600 more for basic expenses - housing, food, and healthcare - in 2007 than in 2000. American households have also taken on thousands of dollars in debt just to maintain their standard of living.

So it may be surprising to learn that over the last eight years, overall productivity grew about 20 percent. Common sense would tell us that increased productivity - and profits - would mean higher wages for workers.

But statistics and common sense don't always go hand-in-hand.

Between 2000 and 2007, real income for middle-class families actually fell $2,000 per household, about 3 percent.

Corporations - especially their CEOs - prospered, but their workers did not. In 1980, the average CEO's wages were 42 times higher than an average worker's. Today it is 344 times higher. Wal-Mart's CEO makes more than $15,100 an hour, while Wal-Mart workers make $10.68 on average. That is not going to build America - or the economy.

American workers need a raise in order to generate the purchasing power needed to turn around the economy.

Recent research shows that workers' reduced collective bargaining power and declining union membership are key contributors to declining middle-class incomes. Since workers in unions earn 30 percent higher wages and are 59 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance than their nonunion counterparts, less bargaining power means lower wages.

Again, common sense would suggest that allowing more workers a free choice to join unions would be a good thing for the economy - which is what the Employee Free Choice Act does.

It is a sensible, nongovernmental solution that would enable more workers to sit down with their employers and negotiate raises and benefits.

The bill provides that when a majority of workers decide to join a union, they can do so by the method of their own choosing - by majority sign-up or holding an election. Ensuring that workers, not corporations, decide whether or not to form a union just makes sense.

But sadly, when the discussion begins, employers often threaten and intimidate their workers more than 90 percent of the time, and a quarter illegally fire union supporters.

Today, tens of millions of workers would join a union if they could. The problem is that if they try, and their employer resists, workers have only about a one in five chance of success.

The current system for forming a union is clearly tilted in the employer's favor, and full of employer intimidation and unfair coercion with minimal penalties for breaking the law.

The Employee Free Choice Act will help level the playing field by ensuring that workers can freely choose to form a union without management intimidation or interference.

So it's no surprise big business doesn't want to change the system. They are in the driver's seat.

However, President-elect Obama, a bipartisan majority in Congress, and 60 percent of the American people believe that giving workers the choice to form a union is the right thing to do.

American workers aren't looking for a bailout or a handout. They simply want a chance to share in the success of the companies they help to prosper.

Passing the Employee Free Choice Act will help restore the middle class and stop the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of us. It is an important step toward creating an economy that works for everyone.

Andy Stern is president of the Service Employees International Union.

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