Which side are you on?

A few months ago I linked to a Washington Post report on employees of Sterling Laundry in Washington, DC, who were trying– in the face of fierce resistance by the company– to organize a union.

Since then those workers have gone on strike and they remain on strike. Those who think the struggle for basic labor rights in the US ended some time in the 1930s should read this account by one of Sterling’s striking employees.

To its great shame, the United States has a pathetically weak labor law which makes it easy for employers to harrass and punish workers who try to organize unions. If a majority of employees sign cards saying they want a union, an employer can demand an election which allows the company to exert even more pressure with mandatory-attendance meetings and expensive anti-union campaigns. (There is in fact a whole industry of anti-union consultants who sell their expertise in discouraging unionization.) Even if employees do vote to unionize, the law makes it easy for employers to delay recognizing the union for months or even years. And penalties for violating the law are so mild that companies routinely and deliberately break it.

In 1978 a Democratic effort to add a few teeth to the labor law was blocked by a Republican filibuster in the Senate. (This, by the way, is why I shed no tears when Republicans complain about Democrats thwarting “the will of the majority” by filibustering against President Bush’s judicial nominations.)

Now another bill– the Employee Free Choice Act— has been introduced in Congress which would enable workers to freely choose whether to form unions by signing cards authorizing union representation. The bill would provide mediation and arbitration for first contract disputes and establish stronger penalties for violation of employee rights.

Of course with the Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, the bill doesn’t stand a chance. But at least it forces members of Congress to answer the question posed by the old labor song: Which side are you on?