Thursday, March 12, 2009

Jim Wallis: Employee Free Choice Act a "Fairness Issue"

Jim Wallis, writing on the Sojourners site, calls the EFCA an issue of fairness. Like me, Wallis is not a blue-collar man. His father worked for Detroit Edison's management, but was trusted by both labor and management during contract negotiations.

“Without justice, what are kingdoms but bands of robbers?”
– St Augustine.

I was surprised when Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) opened up his remarks before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension (HELP) Committee with those words from the great fourth century Christian theologian. Senator Casey is a committed Catholic and spoke during the hearing from a deep commitment to the “common good” in support of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

The bill is contentious to say the least. Earlier this week, a Politico headline ran “Union Bill Creates Jobs — for GOP Ops.” Big business and unions have already spent and will continue to spend tens of millions of dollars in opposition to and support of the bill. The details of the bill will be debated, revised, and compromised over the course of this battle. I testified before the Senate HELP Committee this week in support of the bill, but my remarks did not focus on the technical policy aspects of the legislation, but rather on the underlying moral precepts that the bill attempts to address.

The relationship between employer and employee is broken:

In 1965, U.S. CEOs at major companies made 24 times a worker’s pay – by 2004, CEOs earned 431 times the pay of an average worker. From 1995 to 2005, average CEO pay increased five times faster than that of average workers. While CEO pay continues to increase at rates far exceeding inflation, wages for the vast majority of American workers have failed to keep up with rising prices. In fact, real wages for the 90% of Americans who earn under $92,000 a year have actually fallen since 2001.

This is a fairness issue. The system of employee-employer relations is fundamentally lopsided. There’s a need to level the playing field, to redress a great imbalance. When a system is in such fundamental imbalance, it is our obligation on both sides of the aisle to remedy that. While the details of the legislation are worked and reworked, these fundamental questions of relationships between employer and employee, management and labor, must be addressed.

Twenty years ago, in their pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All,” the U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote:

The way power is distributed in a free market economy frequently gives employers greater bargaining power than employees in the negotiation of labor contracts. … The Church fully supports the right of workers to form unions or other associations to secure their rights to fair wages and working conditions. … In the words of Pope John Paul II, ‘The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrial societies.’ … No one may deny the right to organize without attacking human dignity itself.

My dad worked for Detroit Edison when I was growing up and was often involved with the labor negotiations at the company, not on the labor side, but on the management side. He was often preferred by both sides to be at the table of those tough contract and workplace issues negotiations. Why? Because he recognized the value of unions even if he didn’t agree with their every demand. And he believed a cooperative relationship between labor and management was better than a constantly contentious one. He knew that a good relationship between management and labor was essential to a stable and productive workforce and economy, and that union organizing and leadership helped contribute to that. Things have changed since then, but the principles of cooperation that I learned from my dad’s work with unions, that management and labor can be partners and not just antagonists, needs to be restored. And the great chasm that has now grown between CEO salaries and that of average workers, I know, would have appalled and offended my father.

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