Labor Law Reform Could Turn Tide on Organizing

The most ambitious labor-driven attempt in more than 25 years to win congressional approval of sweeping labor law reform is now before Congress. The goal is to remedy the outlandish violations of human and labor rights that are routinely visited on workers who attempt to organize a union in their workplace.

Introduced into the House of Representatives as the “Employee Free Choice Act” (EFCA, or H.R.800) on February 5 by Democrat George Miller of California, the bill had, at the time of introduction, 231 co-sponsors. At the end of the previous Congress, identical legislation had 44 co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate, where the EFCA will again be introduced. Senate action on the bill will probably be placed “on hold” however, until the battle in the House has progressed.


Passage of the EFCA would be a good step in the direction of bringing larger numbers of workers into unions. EFCA’s primary function would be to facilitate speedy union recognition via the “card check” mechanism. This would replace the current employer-dominated and corrupted National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union election route.

The EFCA “card check” would allow for rapid certification of private sector bargaining units. The NLRB would automatically certify the union as the collective bargaining agent for workers in any unit where a majority of workers have indicated their desire to have the union represent them in contract talks by signing union cards.

The bill provides for quick negotiation of a first union contract, a mediation process for unsettled contract negotiations, an expedited defense of fired or harassed workers with a back-pay remedy, and civil penalties of up to $20,000 per incident on employers who violate the rights of workers during this process.


EFCA got a big boost when Democrats won control of Congress last November. Due to Presidential opposition, the legislation stands no chance of full adoption, but the new Congressional session provides labor with an opportunity to debate and eventually win a roll call vote on this critical bill.

With Democrats controlling both the House and Senate, passage of EFCA through Congress is quite possible, although obviously more likely in the House. Democrats do not possess a 60 percent majority in the Senate, however, meaning that even if a majority of votes develop to pass the EFCA, there would be no way to stop Republicans from filibustering the bill and stopping its passage.

In a mid-February speech, Vice-President Dick Cheney explicitly stated that President Bush would veto the bill, stating that “our Administration rejects any attempt to short-circuit the rights of workers.”

A two-thirds majority in the Senate (and the House) would be necessary to override the veto

Employers and their front groups are already mounting a ferocious counterattack on the EFCA and its supporters, a predictable response that will, unfortunately, likely have an impact on some Democrats.


Despite these obstacles, one victory has already been accomplished. Organized labor’s wide embrace of the need for a political remedy to the problem of declining union membership is no small feat.

As recently as 2000 the AFL-CIO was disinclined to support labor law reform in any fashion, still smarting from the disappointment and embarrassment of the failed labor law reform push of 1977-78.

This labor-led reform drive during the Carter presidency ultimately crashed on Senate rocks after winning passage in the House. Carter eventually threw in the towel on this issue, leaving labor and the reform legislation hanging.

The angry reaction of many union leaders and rank-and-file members to what was perceived as a Democratic Party failure at minimum—and betrayal at worst—played a part in the collapse of the Carter regime and the election of the notoriously anti-union Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Significant sections of the top union officialdom resolved to never again broach the labor law reform subject and risk another electoral debacle.

In recent years, the AFL-CIO refused to seriously support labor law reform, privately fearing that it would serve only to expose Democrats who were happy to accept labor’s support while doing nothing to address the labor rights catastrophe. Promotion of labor law reform by organized labor was minimal-to-non-existent throughout the Clinton years, being routinely dismissed as “unrealistic.”


Publicizing and passing the EFCA, at least in the House, is some of the most important work now before us. It is not a fix-all, but it offers a tremendous platform for labor and our allies to expose corporate abuses, lawbreaking, union busting, and government sanction of the same. It also offers labor an issue by which to measure our own union leadership, as well as Congressional Democrats.

The earliest possible roll call vote for the EFCA in the House would come sometime in March, though this is subject to the congressional calendar and the likelihood that the employer counterattack will likely diminish some House members’ enthusiasm for a recorded vote.

Chris Townsend has been Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers (UE) in Washington, D.C. since 1993. The full text of the bill is at the library of Congress.

Organizing: What's Needed



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Labor Notes staff: Introduction to roundtable discussion

Erin Bowie: The CWA's Experience, A Tale of Two Card-Check Agreements

Kate Bronfenbrenner: Union Power Means More Than Market Share

David Cohen: Labor Needs a New Approach to Organizing...But Members Must Be a Part of It

Steve Early: AFL-CIO's Organizing Summit Looks at "Best Practices" - But Leaves Much Unexamined

Steve Early: A Look at Three "Strategic Campaigns"

Lenny Gentle: South Africa's Experience of "One Industry, One Union"

Allen Gottheil: The Other Side of Organizing -- Winning the First Contract

Jeff Lacher: Members as Organizers Build Stronger Unions

Stephen Lerner: Three Steps To Reorganizing And Rebuilding The Labor Movement

Labor Notes: Summary of Lerner piece

Kim Moody: Does Size Matter? Strategy and Quality of Leadership Are More Important

Peter Olney: To Organize to Scale, We Need Labor Law Reform

Ken Paff: Failure to Organize in Core Jurisdictions Costs Teamsters Bargaining Power

Daisy Rooks: New Organizer Recruits Recognize Flaws in Staff-Centered Organizing Model

Ed Rothstein: A New Vision for Organizing

Sid Shniad: Restructuring Won't Happen Top-Down

Sam Smucker: The AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute

Wendy Thompson: Strategy and Resource Shift Needed: Auto Workers Union Need Organizing Campaign Based on an Army of Member-Organizers

Chris Townsend: Labor Law Reform Could Turn Tide on Organizing

Suzanne Wall: From Amalgamated to Focused