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How to Celebrate Labor Day? Work in Favor of a New Law

September 3, 2009 By:
Sybil Sanchez
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Sybil Sanchez

This Labor Day, take a moment to remember people like Lupe Hernandez.

When she recently toured a Jewish family's apartment in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, she felt connected to our history as immigrants struggling to make better lives for ourselves and our families. Hernandez is one of the immigrant workers on strike in the 2007 film "Made in LA" struggling to receive a fair wage and stop sweatshop abuse by organizing.

Labor Day might seem like a quaint throwback, but the struggle for workers' rights is still being fought.

Our community's relationship to labor is very different today than in yesteryear, but the Jewish obligation to remember our history remains relevant. As Jews, we must respect and support workers' rights, whether it's those of our ancestors or today's immigrants.

While headlines are focused on health care, labor-law reform should stay on the agenda -- specifically, the Employee Free Choice Act. This needed legislation has three important principles: Workers would more easily be able to join or form a union, employers who break the law in efforts to stop union organizing would face more stringent penalties, and workers who have chosen to form a union would have a clear path to an initial collective bargaining agreement with their employer.

Today, 44 percent of newly formed unions are unable to reach initial agreements -- a serious problem that the current law fails to address.

The majority sign-up route to union recognition provided by the Employee Free Choice Act has a long history, and is in widespread use today in the United States and many other countries. But there's a catch: Under current law, workers can form a union via majority sign-up only if their employer agrees to it -- which most employers refuse to do, even when worker support for the union is overwhelming.

Supporting this legislation is a no-brainer if one supports workers' rights to collectively negotiate for decent wages and better working conditions.

The Jewish Labor Committee has been a longtime supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act. We're not alone. A number of other Jewish organizations have also endorsed it, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles, Chicago's Jewish Council for Urban Affairs, Philadelphia's Jewish Social Policy Action Network, Washington's Jews United for Justice and New York's Uri L'Tzedek. In addition, a visit to the Web siteRabbisforworkerschoice.org reveals the support of dozens of rabbis.

Ofer Eini, chairman of Israel's federation of labor -- the Histadrut -- has also weighed in on the issue, conveying his support. In a recent letter to John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, he wrote: "The Employee Free Choice Act will bring U.S. law for union recognition into conformity with Israeli law and international human rights standards on the freedom of association in the workplace. We believe that U.S. workers, and all workers, should have the same rights as Israeli workers, to organize unions free from employer interrogation, intimidation and harassment."

According to Eini, the Employee Free Choice Act will "reform U.S. labor law so that the U.S. National Labor Relations Board is, like the National Labour Court of Israel, empowered to protect freedom of association, instead of thwarting it, as it is currently compelled to do by U.S. labor law."

"So long as the employer-employee relationship remains one of power imbalance," he continued in the letter, "there is no way to reform an NLRB election to make it approach the standard of a free, fair and secret election.

"But as the experience of Israel teaches us, there is no reason to force workers through such a process. The National Labor Relations Board of the United States -- like the National Labour Court of Israel -- is fully capable of assessing the validity of union membership and verifying that membership was achieved without intimidation and coercion. It can do so without being required to impose an undemocratic and workers-rights-violating NLRB election. But it can do so only if the Employee Free Choice Act will pass as written."

The Histadrut leader concluded his argument by calling on "all who desire that our countries' laws reflect our shared ideals of workplace social justice to support Employee Free Choice."

In this respect, Israeli law is pointing the way to a society that treats its workers with justice and dignity.

Can we do any less?

Sybil Sanchez is the executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee.

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