Free choice for all

Sen. Specter chose his affiliation; workers should be able to, as well

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Last week we witnessed an amazing example of American democracy in action. Simply by exercising his freedom of association, Sen. Arlen Specter changed his political party affiliation and joined the Democratic Party. Mr. Specter took advantage of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. And, in a classic moment of pure irony, in the same speech announcing his decision to switch parties, he reiterated his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act.

The Employee Free Choice Act guarantees workers the right to join a union simply by indicating that they want to be part of one, the same way Mr. Specter joined the Democratic Party. This is America. It should not take a new law to guarantee workers the right to freely associate in a labor union, but too often workers are denied the basic rights most Americans take for granted.

Our nation's labor laws are broken, and working people have lost the freedom to improve their lives through collective bargaining and unions.

Employers routinely violate workers' rights, and current law is helpless to stop them. According to Cornell University research, a quarter of employers illegally fire workers who try to form a union, and half threaten to shut down if their workers choose a union.

What's the penalty? Guilty companies are ordered to post a sign saying they broke the law and are occasionally made to pay a worker's lost wages. That's it.

The failure of our system to protect workers' collective action is a tragedy for both our democracy and economy. Working men and women who are part of unions have a real say over their livelihood and work life. They're 52 percent more likely to have health insurance than people without a union, three times more likely to have a pension and much more likely to bring home a bigger paycheck. In fact, the single best ticket to the middle class for today's workers is a union card.

Fortunately, labor law reform stands ready to pass in 2009. Seventy-three percent of Americans say they support reforming labor law, and their opinion is seconded by President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and the leadership in Congress. But as the Employee Free Choice Act goes into committee, the fundamental question is, "What kind of labor law reform do we need to bring balance back into the system?"

There are three basic principles that labor law reform must meet in 2009:

• Workers need to have a real choice to form a union and bargain for a better life, free from intimidation;

• We have to stop the endless delays in negotiating a first contract; companies can't just stall to stop workers' choice;

• There have to be real penalties for violating the law.

Mr. Specter has demonstrated time and time again he is capable of bold action. When he withdrew his support from the Employee Free Choice Act in March, he left the door open to supporting labor law reform. We invite him to boldly walk back through that door and join like-minded senators in his new political party and take part in fixing America's broken labor laws.

It won't be easy. Corporations are pulling out all the stops in fighting reform and lobbying Congress at a frenzied pitch. These are the same giant corporations who got our economy into this mess in the first place and some of the same ones we're now bailing out. Will they succeed in torpedoing this effort to shore up our nation's middle class?

Let's not let them preserve the broken status quo. Let's give back to workers their fundamental freedom to improve their lives with unions and help re-build an economy that works for everyone.

William M. George is president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO ( ) and Jack Shea is president of the Allegheny County Labor Council ( ).


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