WASHINGTON- Hundreds of union members clad in bright green T-shirts loudly cheered on Democratic presidential candidates Thursday morning.
The candidates spoke to members of the American Federation of State,County and Municipal Employees conference at a panel moderated by MSNBC's Chris Matthews. Among other issues,the candidates pledged their support to the Employee Free Choice Act,which the Senate could debate as early as this week.
“We should not compromise on the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain to improve their standard of life,” Sen. Barack Obama,D-Ill.,said. “There's no reason we can't sign the Employee Free Choice Act,and,if the next president has the opportunity to do that,that's going to be me,and I look forward to signing.”
The bill would make it easier for workers to form unions. Now,employees decide whether to form unions through secret-ballot elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. The Employee Free Choice Act would not eliminate the option to use secret ballot elections but would add the option of a “card check” system. If a majority of workers signed cards saying they wanted to join a union,the union would be recognized.
Sen. Hillary Clinton,D-N.Y.,said the bill adds a needed check to an unbalanced labor system.
“Card check gives an individual the opportunity to say yes or no without any kind of consequences,” Clinton said. “What happens is,when you're trying to organize and you have to have an election,the way that the balance has been tilted against labor in the last years means the employers have a lot of opportunities to intimidate and harass the people who are trying to join a union.”
Stewart J. Acuff,national organizing director for the AFL-CIO,said the National Labor Relations Board found employers guilty 31,000 times of unfairly discriminating against worker and union activity in 2005.
“According the NLRB,every 23 minutes an American worker is fired or discriminated against for trying to form a union,” Acuff said.
Former Sen. John Edwards added his support to the bill and said it's time to have a president who isn't afraid to say the word “union.”
“There's extraordinary intimidation brought down on employees trying to organize in the workplace,” Edwards said. “What card check does is it creates democracy. It allows people to make their own choice free of intimidation.”
Edwards also noted that further freedom to unionize would help the country's shrinking middle class.
“If we want to grow the middle class and strengthen the middle class,then one of the critical things we can do is strengthen the right to organize,and card check neutrality is a critical part of that,” Edwards said.
Echoing the feelings of the candidates,Acuff said,”When workers have a union,they have a voice in the workplace. They have a say in their positions and they have a say in their future.”
Business leaders oppose the Employee Free Choice Act because they say it deprives workers of a secret ballot,and they think workers' votes could be affected by peer pressure from union organizers or employers.