Employee Free Choice Act can rebuild the middle class and help the economy.

With all the current news about the state of the economy focusing on the $700 billion bailout for Wall Street and a requested bailout for the auto industry, little or no attention has been paid to the plight of the American worker. That’s troubling given that the middle class is becoming an endangered species in this country. Wages are dropping, health care costs are soaring and the wage gap between corporate executives and working people has never been larger.

For the past 35 years we’ve attempted to borrow our way to the middle class. With individual and national debt at record levels and the current credit and housing crises, this approach has reached its limit. Now is the time to allow working families to bargain their way into the middle class. By restoring the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain, we can achieve a model of economic growth driven by rising wages and increased purchasing power instead of unsustainable borrowing.

So, what’s to be done to rebuild the middle class and restore the American dream of an economically brighter future for the next generation?

A simple, straightforward solution is to pass into law the Employee Free Choice Act and rebuild our middle class by restoring the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively for a better life. Today, most CEOs have contracts that protect their wages and benefits, but many deny their employees the same opportunity.

On average, union employees earn 30 percent more than nonunion employees, have a voice at work, and are much more likely to have health care and retirement benefits. Not surprisingly, more than half of the current work force in the United States say they would join a union tomorrow if they could.

Unfortunately, our current system of labor law is a broken, company-dominated system that denies millions the right to a better life. Under current law, the National Labor Relations Board is supposed to protect a worker’s right to organize. However, corporations routinely intimidate, harass, coerce and even fire people who try to organize unions.

Ninety-two percent of private-sector employers, when faced with employees who want to join together in a union, force employees to attend closed-door meetings to deliver anti-union messages to workers. Half of the employers threaten to shut down partially or totally if their employees join a union. In 25 percent of organizing campaigns, private-sector employers illegally fire workers because they want to form a union. Even after workers successfully unionize, in about one-third of the instances, employers do not negotiate a contract.

The Employee Free Choice Act is an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act which would enable employees to bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions by restoring workers’ freedom to choose for themselves whether to join a union.

The Employee Free Choice Act, when enacted, will do three things:

First, it would establish majority sign-up, meaning that if a majority of the employees sign union authorization cards, validated by the NLRB, a company must recognize the union as its bargaining representative.

Second, if the union and the company are bargaining for their first contract and can’t reach agreement after three months, the Employee Free Choice Act would mandate a contract first through neutral third-party mediation and then through binding arbitration.

Finally, the Employee Free Choice Act would strengthen penalties if employers violated the National Labor Relations Act during the employees’ efforts to form a union or negotiate a first contract; workers would receive triple damages, and for each violation the company would be fined $20,000.

The Employee Free Choice Act is a common-sense way to rebuild our middle class and put the economy back on the right track. It’s an economic recovery plan that allows workers to help themselves and wouldn’t cost taxpayers a cent.

President-elect Barack Obama has pledged his support of the Employee Free Choice Act. Maine’s delegation should do the same.

David C. Projansky works for the Lewiston Housing Authority and is secretary-treasurer of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1458.

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