In the News

Opinion: Congress Should Pass Law Strengthening Unions
San Jose Mercury News, August 26, 2009

By Netsy Firestein

America's working families are locked in a time vise. Our work hours are getting longer, our paychecks and benefits are shrinking, and we are struggling to raise and care for our families. The surging unemployment rate is only adding to our anxiety about holding down a job while juggling work and family responsibilities.

The challenges are grave. However, as a longtime advocate of family friendly workplace policies, I see a perfect opportunity to create new workplace standards that are good for the bottom line and for our working families. It's called the Employee Free Choice Act.

In the coming weeks, Congress will consider federal legislation that would enact long overdue reforms to labor law, finally removing barriers that prevent workers from forming and joining unions.

The problem under current law is that workers who try to join a union are often subject to endless harassment and intimidation by their employers. Sometimes they are even fired. As a result, many who want a union don't ever get that chance.

The Employee Free Choice Act will restore workers' freedom to form unions, free of harassment and intimidation. It will impose stiffer penalties on businesses that violate the law and establish a fair process to ensure workers get a first contract in a timely fashion.

The act in its current form includes a majority sign-up (or "card check") provision that would require the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union if a majority of employees signs cards authorizing a union. While negotiations on the final language of the bill are ongoing, the underlying principle of workers' freedom to form unions, free of harassment and intimidation must be part of any meaningful labor law reform.

It is this freedom to form and join unions that will ultimately make family-friendly workplaces a reality for millions of working families.

A recently released report "Family-Friendly Workplaces: Do Unions Make a Difference?" that I co-authored with Jenifer MacGillvary at UC Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education shows evidence that unions play a crucial role in establishing workplace policies that facilitate work family balance.

Unionized workers are more likely to have family-friendly policies such as paid sick days, paid family leave and family health insurance.

Unionization also promotes compliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act, an important federal law that enables workers to take job-protected leave to bond with a child or care for a seriously ill family member. Unionized employees are more likely to have heard of the Family and Medical Leave Act, have fewer worries about taking leave and are more likely to receive fully paid and partially paid leaves.

As the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act continues in Congress, we are likely to hear heated rhetoric about the relevance of unions in today's economy and society. The evidence is clear. Unions make a significant difference in fostering workplaces that promote a healthy and viable balance between work life and home life.

Organized labor has led the way in setting workplace standards on wages, work hours, benefits and safety. Now is the time to strengthen the labor movement and put the next generation of basic workplace standards in place. It is more important than ever that workers have the freedom to join unions. Congress must restore that freedom by making the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land.

NETSY FIRESTEIN is executive director of the Berkeley based Labor Project for Working Families. She wrote this article for the Mercury News.