A Plea for the Employee Free Choice Act

Harry Bridges

Harry Bridges

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

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.


  1. Dr. Jim Hamilton says

    The unions have been a positive and negative for the American people.
    In the decades before many Americans were uneducated and being taken the advantage of by business owners. Long hours,harsh conditions in the work place open the doors for opportunists to come in acting as saviors for the under paid employees, many having large families and being first time home buyers.
    The positives were they made a little more money in their checks and got limited health insurance and some didn’t get that to which was great if you had a large family at that time.
    However it wasn’t about everyone as we all well know ! Even though we try only to focus on one group of people. The Truth was that every nationality suffered under the same system that was suppose to help everyone achieve the American dream.
    The negative was you had uneducated people in all positions making large paychecks and many being in charge over some that had more education than they did.. Now this created fear ! We all know that knowledge is power. But only if you are in a position to use it..

    So the union leaders used race to control the business owners and the workers, by using violence to keep the educated and or other nationalities out of the work place.
    The owners had two agendas (1) making money (2)keeping the workers that had experience in production.
    The union leaders agenda was simply to make money at any cost..

    Let’s look back and ask the question ” Have we won ” ?
    The answer is “NO”!!!
    Even though many unions don’t exist anymore the effect that they had still exist today !
    There was a time when you could buy a new home for $500.00 a new car for $1,000.00.. There was no welfare system to support people that simply didn’t want to work or get a free education.
    So you are saying what did the unions have to do with this !
    Most educated people know that the unions had power in the government in the 50’s & 60’s ! So what they did was tell the people rather than fighting and losing good worker’s, let’s give them something ! ( Welfare ).. We will give them a free check and a medical card every two weeks and most of them will go away.


    Now instead of 100% trying to take your jobs !
    You will only have 20% and only 10% of them will have a high school education.
    We will give 5% of them a job but not (supervisors positions )and say they have no experience. Now they still can’t buy a home or a car because they haven’t been on the job long enough to get credit..

    Now you can say whatever you want to regarding these statements,
    ” but the truth shall make you free”
    Out of that 10% they gave jobs to those that has a high school education and some that didn’t. But as long as they didn’t try to move up the ladder their jobs were ” SOME WHAT SAFE “…

    If you were a man or woman that was blessed enough to get one of these jobs and you had a family while making $7.00 an hour and paying the unions $1.50 out of that while others were making $5.00 an hour, you weren’t going to put up much of a fight.

    Do i blame these people ( Of course not ).

    Because it would have been to easy for them to wind up on welfare. They had a high school education and a job but NO POWER..

    The unions won ! The majority of young people either had to go to war or they began to quit school and it was made easy for them to get a check and medical card while doing nothing.
    We gave up the fight in 1968 !!
    I remember working in a hospital in 1975 and there was only 3 blacks working there, Great hun…
    ( i didn’t realize just how blessed i was )So i mess it up by not using this opportunity to help others, but at the same time you could help others that didn’t want to be helped.

    It’s not so easy to get on the system anymore !
    But one thing hasn’t changed.. ( FREEDOM OF EDUCATION }..
    The Library has always been free !!!
    We can’t blame the system or the unions any longer.
    We only have ourselves to blame for giving up the fight.
    This isn’t just for Black people or African Americans or whatever we want to call ourselves today.
    This is about every American ( Nationality )that got caught up in the lies of the 50’s and 60’s, Our parents,grandparents and now our children. This shouldn’t be about me,you or them ( about us ).

  2. Blake says

    Given the history of unions, it’s ironic that Schwartz highlights democratic procedures and brings up intimidation by **employers**.

    Regarding EFCA, it’s true that if enough employees so request, the process will still be done by secret ballot. But the employees who oppose unionization and are most likely to want privacy aren’t likely to speak up for secret ballots in the face of “pressure” [polite term] from co-workers who favor unionization.

    After all, there’s wisdom in the old “light-bulb” joke, applied here:

    Q: How many Teamsters does it take to change a light bulb?

    A: Twenty-seven. You got a problem with that?

  3. ed says

    Unions are horrible entities that gradually suck the life out of industries (e.g. US automobiles) and screw the consumer. They are no better than any other special interest group.

    Moreover, this badly named bill actually makes legal even more coercive methods to force employees join a union. Free choice my ass.

    • says

      Ed, you are obviously ignorant (i.e. uneducated) about unions and know nothing about them. Unions are not a special interest group, they are membership not-for-profit organizations and do not operate to make a profit for shareholders. If you weren’t so immature in your statements it might be worth the time to attempt to enlighten you. The free choice act is a fair and balanced bill that would let employees choose union membership without interference from employers. Share holders or other business owners do not let the employees choose the owners, the boards of directors, or the managers so why should employers be allowed to attempt to choose through intimidation and manipulation whether a union will represent the workers.


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