Public Eye: Employee Choice — Which Side Are You On?

Bob Burnett
Wednesday April 01, 2009 - 09:29:00 PM

In 1941, the Almanac Singers made famous the 1930s protest song, “Which Side Are You On.” 


Don’t scab for the bosses 

Don’t listen to their lies 

Us poor folks haven’t got a chance 

Unless we organize.  

Which side are you on? 

Which side are you on? 


In the face of debilitating recession, more and more workers understand they don’t have a chance unless they organize. The Employee Free Choice Act guarantees this right. 

Since 1945, U.S. union membership has declined from 35 percent of workers to 12 percent—a misleading figure since most union members are public employees and only 7.5 percent of private employees are organized. Aligned with the Republican Party, big business has mounted a series of successful attacks on unions. The National Labor Relations Board has been weakened and until the appointment of new Secretary Hilda Solis, the Department of Labor neutered. There have been several paths of attack: Many states passed “right-to-work” laws, making it difficult for unions to function. Although federal law guarantees the right of workers to organize, lack of enforcement encouraged employers to harass or punish workers engaged in pro-union activities. As anti-union activities gained momentum, businesses hired professional union busters. 

As a result, violence against union organizers increased as well as the use of replacement workers or “scabs.” Last year, more than one-third of employers refused to negotiate with a union after workers approved it. 

At the heart of this decline was the deliberate weakening of the National Labor Relations Act. Under current law, workers can select union representation either through an election process or through majority sign-up—“card check.” However, businesses decide whether to use the election process or card check. Corporate executives typically select the election process and use the pre-election period to harass pro-union workers; typically, employers fire 20 percent of workers who advocate a union. 

The Employee Free Choice Act strengthens the card check process. It dictates that if a majority of workers in a workplace sign cards authorizing a union, then they get a union. However, the EFCA preserves the right of workers to call for a secret ballot election and strengthens that process. The EFCA also provides for arbitration so businesses cannot ignore the union. 

“Which Side Are You On” recalled the bitter 1931 strike in Harlan County, Kentucky. 


They say in Harlan County 

There are no neutrals there 

You’ll either be a union man 

Or a thug for J. H. Blair. 

Which side are you on? 

Which side are you on? 


In the union-busting tradition of the era, the coal companies hired thugs to terrorize the miners and paid the local sheriff, J.H. Blair, to jail strikers. 

Over the past 70 years, little has changed. In the 21st century, U.S. corporations rarely beat and jail dissidents, but workers continue to be denied their fair share of corporate profits. Over the last 16 years, the wages of corporation executives grew by 393 percent while the wages of working Americans were flat. In 2008, the average CEO’s salary was 300 times that of the average worker. 

With the outrage over AIG executive bonuses, public sentiment has finally turned against the humongous salaries commanded by the few at the top of the corporate food chain. But the other shoe has yet to drop; coupled with anger at excessive executive pay should be outrage at the poor compensation being offered to hard-working, middle-class Americans. Over the past 35 years, worker salaries—adjusted for inflation—have declined from $41,198 in 1973 to $37,606 in 2008. 

During this period, only union members have seen their salaries and benefits increase. In 2008, unionized workers earned 11.3 percent more than non-union workers and were more likely to have health care benefits. That’s why making it easier to join a union will benefit all working Americans. 

Predictably, big business and Republicans have described the Employee Free Choice Act as “a job killer” and “a threat to one of the fundamentals of democracy.” They’re trying to use scare tactics to keep Americans from understanding the bitter truth: maintaining the status quo benefits only corporate executives and their political lackeys. Anti-labor voices attempt to paint the Employee Free Choice Act as undemocratic, saying it prohibits the secret ballot. It doesn’t. Instead it makes it one of several options for certifying a union. 

President Obama supports the Employee Free Choice Act, as do most liberal members of Congress. Predictably, most Republicans will oppose it. The critical votes are those of so-called “Blue Dog Democrats” like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Evan Bayh of Indiana. If Democrats stick together, the Employee Free Choice Act will pass and give a gigantic boost to the prospects of working Americans. As the song goes, 


Come all of you good workers 

Good news to you I’ll tell 

Of how that good old union 

Has come in here to dwell. 

Which side are you on? 

Which side are you on? 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at