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Your take on labor justice is likely all about where you started from. My perspective starts with the old slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” There is probably no need to explain that expression of solidarity, but the question of unity and sharing is about with whom you practice it and how generous you want to be.
I practice vigorous, joyful solidarity with my union brothers and sisters at UC Irvine, including members of units represented by the Union of Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE), the United Autoworkers (UAW), the Coalition of University Employees (CUE) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). AFSCME’s green-T-shirted members recently rallied in response to Governor Schwarzenegger’s threat to limit their work and, yes, their pay, in the face of spending cuts.
Despite the current funding crisis – not to mention the next one and the one after that – my union comrades have power and strength because they have each other. They have a labor contract and the federally protected privilege of being represented in their (our) workplace by a union.
I proceed because other workers are increasingly organizing to join unions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly 500,000 new members in a year. Why? Because workers’ lives are demonstrably better, benefits are stronger, pay is higher and political and work lives are more meaningfully represented by the workers themselves rather than by management.
So I advance the position that our collective lives and work at UCI would all be improved if unrepresented employees, including Senate faculty (professors), were unionized. They are still encumbered with a medieval system of workplace decision-making, which benefits management by allowing some workers to cut special salary deals with their employer, a classic divide and conquer strategy.
Therefore, I support efforts to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Before taking office, in an interview with the Washington Post, President Obama said, “I think the basic principal of making it easier and fairer for workers who want to join a union is important. And the basic outline of the Employee Fair Choice is ones that I agree with.”
“Yes, we can” was Obama’s engaging campaign slogan. In Spanish, it means “Si, se puede,” which has been for decades the rallying cry of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW), the agricultural workers led by Cesar Chavez. It’s not clear to me that all supporters of the new president’s reformist-seeming agenda of hope and change understood that he’d embraced a militant pro-worker slogan against growers, but I am absolutely sure that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce knew. This gesture of solidarity worried the nation’s other representatives of business interests. In English and in Spanish, business means employers and bosses, not employees who, if given a fair chance, would join their fellow workers in a union — if they could.
The EFCA would make it simpler and easier for unrepresented workers to unionize. It would eliminate a pro-employer obstacle to workplace organizing by simply requiring workers to sign a card expressing their desire to collectively represent themselves. It would strengthen workplace protections and mandate binding arbitration, replacing a system which forces a secret ballot system that can be easily manipulated by employers. A secret ballot is hardly secret when your boss knows who’s pro-union. It’s ironic that the business community uses its commitment to democracy as a way to prevent workers from organizing democratic workplace unions.
Last week’s signing by President Obama of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act might have been seen by everybody, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – not just women and workers – as the correction of an obvious injustice. Yet, only a handful of Republicans voted for it, most siding instead with the conservative Supreme Court’s ruling against the act. Ledbetter was a factory manager discriminated against by her employer because she was a woman. I am a man, a unionist and a higher education worker. Yet watching this cheerful and brave person stand with the new president after 20 years of struggle, I saw an ally, and in her victory, my own victory — a victory for all.
Be prepared for a massive media campaign against the passage of the EFCA, funded by corporate business lobbyists. These are the same interests who opposed Lilly Ledbetter and Cesar Chavez and voted against passing every piece of legislation that benefits workers and unions. Write President Obama and Senators Feinstein and Boxer, and encourage them to remember the “we” in “Yes we can” and “Si, se puede,” and to vote for Employee Free Choice and solidarity.

Andrew Tonkovich is a lecturer in the Department of English and president of the union local, which represents librarians and lecturers, University Council – American Federation of Teachers.

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