No "Free Choice?" How about a little RESPECT?

If it's not clear to you by now, President Bush and the rest of the Republican Party think it should be exceedingly difficult for workers to form unions.

In fact, they would prefer that it be impossible.

On June 26, Republicans blocked a U.S. Senate vote on the House-approved Employee Free Choice Act reforming federal labor laws to allow workers to choose card-check union elections. Bush had vowed to veto the bill.

Anyone who bought their talking points about protecting workers' rights to a secret ballot - a right retained in the legislation - isn't paying attention to their history of denying millions of Americans the right to form unions at all.

Despite the extraordinary heroism of New York City's police and firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11 - union members all - Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress used that tragedy as an excuse to deny union membership to all airport security workers and employees of the Homeland Security Department. They argued that unions are an impediment to national security.

The White House also sought to deny union membership to thousands of civilian Defense Department workers, like those at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. So far, federal courts have ruled these efforts are illegal.

But the Bush administration's most sweeping attack on union membership was when his National Labor Relations Board redefined who could be considered "supervisors" and therefore prevented from forming unions. Supervisors, previously considered people with the ability to hire and fire others, now include a broad assortment of "skilled" or "experienced" workers who occasionally or incidentally oversee or assign the work of those less skilled.

The Economic Policy Institute estimated that the change could strip eight million Americans of their union protection or block them from ever joining one. We're talking about nurses, construction workers, painters, welders, electricians - workers in nearly every industry.

In other words, many of us have the same job and responsibilities we had before, but the Bush administration "promoted" us and gave our employers the go-ahead to take away our freedom of association.

If you don't think this attack on your rights is real, ask a nurse at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. Last year, the hospital attempted in court to reclassify all 600 of its registered nurses - every single one - as supervisors, and therefore not eligible to speak with a united voice about their working conditions and patient care through the Washington State Nurses Association.

In the last election, Americans overwhelmingly voted for a change of course. By installing a new Democratic majority in Congress, voters rejected failed Iraq policies, congressional corruption, environmental degradation, and yes, the erosion of workers' rights. Exit polls showed that union members voted for union-endorsed Democratic congressional candidates about 75 percent of the time - a whopping 50-point margin - and union households accounted for roughly 1 in 4 voters. Non-union voters supported the Democratic candidates by a 2-point margin.

This Democratic Congress was elected by vowing to restore workplace rights, including the freedom to form unions. Although the Employee Free Choice Act has been blocked by minority Republicans, there is a new effort to address Bush's "supervisor" issue.

It's called the RESPECT Act and it would restore union rights to the workers harmed by the NLRB's expansive new interpretation of supervisors. So far, the Senate version (S.969) has been co-sponsored by both Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and the House version (H.R. 1644) has been signed by Democratic U.S. Reps. Brian Baird, Norm Dicks, Jay Inslee, Rick Larsen, Jim McDermott, Adam Smith, and Republican Rep. Dave Reichert.

"The rights of workers to be treated fairly, to organize, and to collectively bargain for better benefits and wages must be protected," said Rep. Baird. "Employers shouldn't be able to take away someone's rights under the guise of giving them a promotion. The RESPECT Act protects workers and ensures livable wages, comprehensive benefits and decent working conditions. Our country's labor practices were founded on workers' ability to organize and fight for their rights. The RESPECT Act continues this tradition."

Let's hope that the RESPECT Act gets the bipartisan support it deserves, and restores the freedom of association for millions of Americans.

Rick Bender is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO


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