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Organic Consumers Association

Employee Free Choice Act and the Lesson of Smithfield Packing

After fifteen years of struggle, the unlawful firing of union supporters, two lost elections run by the National Labor Relations Board, seven years of litigation over company abuses of workers and a federal racketeering lawsuit brought by the company against the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Smithfield Packing slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C., has recognized its workers right to be represented by a union.

The workers did this without benefit of any federal law requiring employers to accept a union as the representative of their employers based on a majority of those workers having signed "authorization cards" so requesting --- a "card check" election. Said company spokesperson Dennis Pittman, this shows "that the union can win without a card check."

Maybe.  But to many people, including supporters of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the proposed federal legislation that would authorize "card check" elections, the fact that it took fifteen years for 5,000 workers at one slaughterhouse to get union representation just shows how desperately that law is needed.

The undisputed number one priority of the labor movement is to pass EFCA. The United States Chamber of Commerce, on behalf of currently non-union companies, has promised to spend ten million dollars opposing that effort. Other corporate-funded groups, such as the Center for Union Facts and the deceptively named Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, as well as many individual companies, are making efforts of their own.  

In a November 25, 2008, memo, for example, McDonald's USA President Don Thompson urged 2,400 franchisees to "contact your U.S. senators and representatives to oppose" the Employee Free Choice Act. McDonald's has formed an "internal response team" to help franchisees "actively participate in the opposition to EFCA."

It is not surprising that the Chamber of Commerce and corporations who are still fighting yesterday's battles are willing to work so hard to defeat EFCA. Given the importance of this bill to the survival of our country's economy, however, perhaps there is hope that a "third way" could be followed. Perhaps, in these times of economic crisis, business can move beyond the old assumption that anything that is good for workers hurts their bosses, and vice versa.

Unions have certainly recognized the new realities. Just two days ago, on January 9, 2009, YRC Worldwide, the owner of trucking companies Yellow Transportation and Roadway Express, announced that the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has agreed for its members to take a 10% wage cut, due to the company's precarious financial circumstance. In exchange, the Teamsters employees will receive a 15% ownership stake in the company.

The success of other companies, such as United Parcel Service, the world's largest package delivery company, gives the lie to the idea that being a unionized company is bad for business. In its 2008 SEC 10-K filing, UPS cites its "good relations" with its "experienced and dedicated" employees, nearly 60% of whom are represented by labor unions (251,800, out of a total of 425,300), as part of the reason for its continuing success.

Perhaps all of the stakeholders in the American economy can finally realize what economists have long been aware of, that an organized work force can work hand in glove with organized employers for the benefit of the companies, the workers, and the consumers who need to be able to buy the products these companies make. A number of other major companies, such as AT&T, Harley Davidson and Kaiser Permanente, have already agreed voluntarily to recognize a union when a majority of their employees express their interest in doing so.

If this insight continues to spread, perhaps the battle over EFCA will ultimately reveal the false premises upon which opposition to this law is based. While some companies, like Smithfield, have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this new age, perhaps enough other companies will join labor in the effort to pass EFCA, or at least stay neutral, to enable this measure to be come law, thereby restore some health and balance to company-worker relations in this country, at long last. 

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