On the surface, Wal-Mart appears to be thriving while most Americans suffer through the recession. But the company’s 1.4 million workers are not sharing in that prosperity. The worsening financial times have led to a new Administration in the White House, and new interest in giving workers greater control over the workplace. With a press conference kick off in Congress yesterday, some of the leading members of the U.S. Senate and House submitted the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which will have a profound impact on the nation’s anti-union big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot. EFCA allows workers to bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions by restoring their rights to form unions. “The current crisis has shown us the dangers of an economy that leaves working families behind,” said Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “The people who work in our factories, build our roads, and care for our children are the backbone of this great nation. The Employee Free Choice Act will give these hardworking men and women a greater voice in the decisions that affect their families and their futures.” Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) added, “Just as the National Labor Relations Act, the 40 hour week and the minimum wage helped to pull us out of the Great Depression and into a period of unprecedented prosperity, so too will the Employee Free Choice Act help reinvigorate our economy. Today is one of those defining moments in history as we introduce legislation that puts power back into the hands of the people who are truly the backbone of this economy.” The House chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, Representative George Miller (D-CA), a long-time critic of Wal-Mart’s cost to U.S. taxpayers, noted: “Americans’ wages have been stagnating or falling for the past decade. For far too long, we have seen corporate CEOs take care of themselves and shareholders at the expense of workers. If we want a fair and sustainable recovery from this economic crisis, we must give workers the ability to stand up for themselves and once again share in the prosperity they help to create.” According to legislators, since 1935, workers have been allowed to form a union either through majority sign-up or through a National Labor Relations Board election. The Congressmen termed the NLRB election process rules as “slanted,” and said they dramatically favor employers. Studies have found that the majority signup process reduces pressure and coercion in the workplace. Under current labor law, employers can veto workers’ decision to organize through majority signup and force them into the divisive NLRB election process. A recent study concluded that a pro-union worker is illegally fired in a quarter of all organizing drives. EFCA gives workers the choice to form a union either through majority signup or an NLRB election. In addition, the legislation increases penalties against employers that illegally fire or discriminate against workers for their union activity during an organizing or first contract drive, including requiring employers to pay treble back pay to workers whom they are found to have illegally fired.The bill also allows employers and newly formed unions to refer bargaining to mediation and, if necessary, binding arbitration if they are not able to agree on a first contract. EFCA has won the support of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. In separate speeches last week, they made it clear that the legislation is a priority and that Congress must pass it. Companies like Wal-Mart and Home Depot will spend a fortune this year trying to lobby undecided lawmakers to kill the bill.
Wall Street analysts immediately set up the dynamic of Wal-Mart as the ‘victim’ of the EFCA bill. Yesterday Citigroup downgraded Wal-Mart stock from ‘buy’ to ‘hold’ saying that EFCA would increase labor costs and could be a significant drag to earnings for the world’s largest retailer. “We believe that Wal-Mart would be the primary target if EFCA/card check were to be passed,” a Citigroup analyst told clients. The logic is that if EFCA is successful, and a union forms at Wal-Mart, the company would have to pay higher wages for more seasoned employees, increase employee benefits significantly, and experience diminished workforce flexibility. The members of Congress who filed the legislation, however, counter that the EFCA will make the economy work for everyone again by giving workers the tools they need to bargain for fair wages, benefits and treatment. The bill will give workers the choice of whether to form a union through majority sign-up or through an NLRB election process. The EFCA allows the NLRB to certify a union if a majority of employees in a workplace sign authorization cards designating the union as its bargaining representative. Under current law, employers often force workers to go through one-sided, time-consuming elections, with coercion and pressure brought on workers who try to organize. The EFCA also guarantees a first union contract through mediation and arbitration. If a first contract can’t be settled within 3 months, either party may take the dispute to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), and from there to binding arbitration. Under current law, employers are under no obligation to reach agreement, and as many as one-third of union elections failed to produce a first contract after two or three years of bargaining. The EFCA also tightens rules against employers who violate the National Labor Relations Act. Wal-Mart’s reaction to the EFCA is summed up by the comments of the corporation’s former CEO, Lee Scott, who, in one of his final public appearances, told an audience at the National Retail Federation Annual Convention on January 12, 2009, “I don’t think you can amend this bill. It is fundamentally so flawed. I don’t want business 100% in control of everything. But the labor bosses have a history that’s not all that attractive either and we don’t want them in charge of everything. This country depends on checks and balances. Let’s keep the appropriate checks and balances in place.” Readers are urged to call the Congressional switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to your Representative or Senator, with the following message: “I’m calling from the district to urge you to quickly pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Wal-Mart says this bill is ‘fundamentally flawed,’ but it’s 1.4 million workers in America would tell you their current working conditions and health care coverage is also fundamentally flawed. The EFCA is about ‘choice.’ Citigroup has downgraded Wal-Mart stock because paying workers more would be a ‘drag to earnings.’ Yes, its cheaper to keep workers disorganized, and to exploit their labor — but this is why the middle class is hurting. If companies like Wal-Mart shared more of their wealth with their workers, the economy would be lifted by those worker’s earnings. To Wal-Mart, workers are just another cost center, like heat or lights. But the EFCA creates a level playing field that allows workers to have a fair chance at collectively bargaining for their future prosperity. All we are saying, is give Choice a chance!”