WASHINGTON—Today, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, spoke on the Senate floor in support of modernized elections rules proposed yesterday by the National Labor Relations Board.
Below are his full remarks as prepared for delivery:
“In 1912, women went on strike at a textile plant in Lawrence, Massachusetts. They inspired the nation when they walked the picket line with signs that said: “We want bread, but we want roses too.” Those words helped to shape the character of the country we created and to launch a century of economic growth fueled by shared prosperity for the American people. Nearly 100 years later, we face the same fundamental question about what kind of country we want to be. When we imagine the America of our dreams, for our children and grandchildren, is bread good enough for the middle class in this country or should we have roses too?
“Republicans portray our country as poor and broke, and have used that as an excuse to rationalize an unprecedented attack on the middle class in this country. But the reality is that we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world; it’s just that more of our nation’s wealth is being concentrated at the top.
“Certainly, the American people do not begrudge the rich their good fortune and success. But we do resent it when the wealthy and powerful manipulate the political system to reap huge advantages at the expense of working people. Today, unfortunately, more and more people sense in their hearts that the rules of the game have become rigged to favor big corporations and their CEOs. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the process by which workers form a union – or, should I say, the process by which workers are blocked from forming a union.
“As it now stands, the union election process is a never-ending, bitter struggle marred by corporate intimidation and frivolous lawsuits. Workers have to walk through broken glass on their hands and knees just to gain the same basic right that every wealthy CEO has – the right to have the terms of their employment set out in an enforceable contract. Right now, CEOs can bargain to secure extremely generous salaries and golden-parachute retirements, but millions of hardworking Americans don’t have a way to guarantee from week to week that they’ll be able to work enough hours to feed their family, or that their health benefits won’t be cut without notice.
“That’s not right – and it’s not the American way. It denies workers a fair shake. And the practical effect is to further weaken our middle class.
“Recently, the National Labor Relations Board—the federal agency that sets the rules for labor relations— took important steps to address this problem by proposing rules to standardize the process that workers use to decide whether they want a union. These commonsense changes will remove unnecessary delays from the process, cut down on frivolous legal challenges, and give workers the right to a fair, up-or-down vote in a reasonable period of time. The new rules don’t encourage unionization, and they don’t discourage it. They just give workers the ability to say yes or no.
“These changes are desperately needed, because the current system is hopelessly broken. Under current rules, if workers want to form a union, it can take years before they are able to vote, let alone start bargaining a contract.
“If a party takes advantage of every opportunity for delay, the average time before workers can vote is 198 days, and in some cases it has been as long as 13 years before employees were able to vote in a union election. These workers know firsthand that justice delayed is justice denied.
“While the election process drags on, employees are subjected to harassment, threats, and worse. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that, among workers who openly advocate for a union during an election campaign, one in five is fired. A Cornell University study found that nine out of 10 employers require their employees to attend meetings on work time to hear anti-union presentations, with workers required to attend an average of 10 anti-union meetings. Some unions engage in questionable behavior too. Basically, everyone is disadvantaged when the process drags on too long.
“The proposed rules would curb opportunities for intimidation by employers and unions alike. They would also improve the consistency and fairness of the election system.
The new rules standardize timelines for union elections, so that both sides have a fair chance to make their case and then employees have the right to a timely vote. They preserve due process rights, but don’t allow frivolous lawsuits to prevent workers from voting. Most importantly, they ensure that employers and employees have a level playing field, where corporate executives and rank-and-file workers alike have an equal chance to make their case for or against the union.
“Some workplaces will choose a union, some will not. But protecting the right of workers to make that choice brings some balance and fairness to the system, so that the deck isn’t always stacked against ordinary working people and in favor of the wealthy and the powerful.
“America’s future depends on our middle class having not just bread, but roses too, just as was the case 99 years ago. Our government faces a clear choice: do we stand for seemingly unlimited corporate power, or do we stand for the basic rights of working people?? Republicans keep pushing for special favors for the wealthy and big corporations, claiming this will create jobs and economic prosperity. Instead, over the last decade, it has brought us high unemployment and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
The problem with trickle-down economics is that it has failed to trickle down. Wealth has been increasingly concentrated at the top.
“There is a better way. Quality jobs that pay a living wage, provide health insurance and a secure retirement are the foundation of a strong middle class. Having a strong middle class that can afford to buy quality products made in American is the recipe for economic renewal. I applaud the NLRB for taking a significant step forward in restoring the middle class by proposing rules to fix the broken union election process. I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting this important effort.”