The year 1984 marked the fiftieth anniversary of organized labor’s victory in the great 1934 West Coast maritime and San Francisco general strikes. On that occasion, Harry Bridges, hero of the strike and founder and legendary leader of the Pacific Coast-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union, declared, “The principles for which we fought in 1934 are still true and still useful. Whether your job is pushing a four-wheeler or programming a computer, I don’t know of any way for working people to win basic economic justice and dignity except by being organized into a solid, democratic union.” This year, as the ILWU, its union allies, and its progressive friends celebrate another quarter-century since the events of 1934, Bridges’ statement remains as valid as ever.
The rank-and-file testimonies in my new book, often echo Bridges’s assertion. These workers were fortunate to join their union when they did. Today, millions of unorganized workers would like to be in unions, too. But collective bargaining representation is hard to come by. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 guarantees workers “full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment.” Yet the spirit and often the letter of the law have been systematically flouted by employers since at least the 1960s. Between 1960 and the present, the number of unionized workers in the United States has declined from 30 percent to about 12 percent.
At the hint of an organizing drive, workers are subjected to strident, misleading employer anti-union house meetings. Activists are intimidated on the job. They are fired and blacklisted with impunity for union activity, although such reprisals are explicitly forbidden under the NLRA. If a union still wins a representation election under the law’s National Labor Relations Board, which was created to enforce the act, employers endlessly maneuver to avoid signing a contract. In this way, they defeat unions with such regularity that labor activists frequently avoid utilizing the NLRB because they regard it as an impediment to organization rather than an aid.
H.R. 1409 and S. 560 Employee Free Choice Act of 2009
A partial solution to this state of affairs is now before Congress in the form of the Employee Free Choice Act. Although the nation’s attention to EFCA has flagged in recent months because of other issues, including the war in Afghanistan and health care reform, EFCA represents the most important effort to achieve meaningful labor law reform on the national level since an equally important bill was defeated by corporate lobbyists in 1978.
EFCA would allow workers to collect union pledge cards to gain NLRB certification in lieu of holding a representation election. Employers charge that this provision would end the NLRB’s democratic selection process, but it would not. It would merely provide another means of certification, enabling workers to avoid the employer coercion possible under the NLRB electoral system. The law would also require arbitration after union certification if no contract could be agreed to within a reasonable amount of time. This would stop employers from stalling endlessly at the bargaining table. Finally, the law would mandate meaningful penalties on employers for “unfair labor practices” and would include restitution for mistreated workers.
Although the odds for the passage of EFCA seem long today despite a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president, the importance of EFCA should not be forgotten. In mid-2009, many of America’s labor historians signed a statement that strongly endorsed the act. This was a good beginning. Going forward, all of us who are committed to social justice should do what we can to support passage of EFCA in the immediate future.
Harvey Schwartz is the curator of the ILWU Oral History Collection at the ILWU library in San Francisco and an oral historian at the Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University. His latest book is: Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU (University of Washington Press, 2009).
Republished with permission from the History News Network.