[Chandler] Protect Workers' Rights | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[Chandler] Protect Workers' Rights

On Jan. 21, House Labor Committee Chairman Rep. Rufus Straughter, D-Belzoni, read House Concurrent Resolution 25 to the Mississippi House of Representatives. HCR 25—which Rep. Jim Evans, D-Jackson, authored—would "commemorate Workers' Memorial Day on April 28, 2009." This simple resolution elicited a strong attack by Republicans, led by Rep. Brian Aldridge of Tupelo and Rep. Steven Palazzo of Biloxi.

True to their faith in the supremacy of big corporations, most Republicans and some Democrats staunchly support their directives. Disregarding the purpose of Workers' Memorial Day—a day which honors the hundreds of thousands of workers injured at work and the tens of thousands who lost their lives helping our economy roll—Aldridge and Palazzo amended the resolution to include language opposing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which among others things would strengthen workers' ability to fight for safer and healthier working conditions.

EFCA would allow workers to form unions by signing cards authorizing union representation. Once workers have organized, the EFCA protects their right to bargain with employers over wages, benefits and conditions at work, among other things. It would provide for mediation and arbitration for first contract disputes. It would establish stronger penalties for violation of employee rights when workers seek to form a union and during their first contract negations with their employers.

Last fall, the Center for Economic and Policy Research detailed the good news and bad news for young workers who may not know the advantages of being in a union. The bad news is that workers between the ages of 18 and 29 have the lowest organization rate of any age group. They have been hardest hit by stagnant wage growth over the last three decades, despite a substantial increase in the number of young workers with college degrees. The good news is that young workers who are in a union earn an average of 12.4 percent more—or about $1.75 an hour—than non-union workers. They are 17 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 24 percent more likely to have a pension plan.

A November 2008 poll by Peter D. Hart Research Associates showed that nearly two-thirds of voters believe it is important to pass the EFCA, and nearly one third believe it should be a top priority for Congress. Overall, 55 percent of voters said they approve of labor unions, compared to 27 percent who say they disapprove. The EFCA would give all workers a fair and direct path to form unions. President Barack Obama supports this legislation, as do a majority on both sides of Congress.

The U.S. Congress has severely weakened federal laws that protect the interests of workers during the last half of the 20th century, and the agencies responsible for enforcing those laws are under-funded and understaffed. In the 1930s, Congress passed the original National Labor Relations Act in response to workers' struggles for dignity and justice at work, and it provided a similar process for workers to use to form their organizations.

However, in the late 1940s, the Republican-dominated Congress passed the "Taft-Hartley" Act to stymie workers' ability to organize and bargain collectively. The act authorized states to enact "right-to-work" laws, and excluded supervisors from union organizing activity. That began the downward push on workers, the loss of unions' capacity to fight back, the escalation of corporate greed and the demise of the "middle class." In Mississippi, state legislation that protects workers is nearly non-existent.

African American legislators meeting in Tallahassee, Fla., in 1872 declared: "Capital needs no legislation in order to provide for its use. Capital is strong enough to take care and provide for itself, but corporations are a dangerous power, especially large or consolidated corporations, and the American people fear them with distrust. … We want no Tom Scotts, Jim Fisks or Vanderbilts in this State to govern us by means of which they would influence legislation tending to advance (their) personal interests."

Americans should have listened to them. We can start to level the economic playing field by encouraging workers to organize. Join in the effort to organize and push wages and benefits back up and push injuries and deaths at work down. Enact the Employee Free Choice Act now!

Bill Chandler has been a union organizer in the South for more than 40 years and is executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance.

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