Labor-management relations in South Carolina got off to a bad start from day one. The first three ships bearing English settlers into Charleston Harbor in 1670 also brought slaves, and for the next two centuries, South Carolina's economy was built on slave labor. Things haven't improved a hell of a lot since then.
Today, South Carolina has the lowest percentage of unionized workers in the nation — 3.9 percent — a fact which the S.C. Chamber of Commerce used to boast on their website. We can hardly go a week without hearing Gov. Mark Sanford, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint, or Rep. Henry Brown — all Republicans — bashing unions on the pages of the state's newspapers, or The Washington Post or National Public Radio.
Unions are feared in this state almost as much as black people, and perhaps that is not altogether a coincidence. The largest, most powerful union in South Carolina is the International Longshoremen's Association, which is more than 95 percent black. The ILA made for a convenient whipping boy for Republicans and the state business elite when Maersk announced its plans to pull out of Charleston last fall.
You will be hearing more about all this in a few weeks, as Congress and the country start debating the Employee Free Choice Act. You will hear Sanford, Graham, DeMint, and Brown — along with GOP members of the state General Assembly — denounce the EFCA as a threat to our national economy, as a threat to workers' rights (like they give a damn about workers' rights), god, country, and motherhood.
But before you drink their corporate Kool-Aid, you should stop and remember that it was the GOP which supported the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, but voted unanimously in the House of Representatives to block President Barack Obama's stimulus package, which included unemployment compensation for millions of Americans, as well as funding for Medicare and food stamps. And you might ask yourself which one of those programs would most benefit you and your family.
Now the Republicans are fighting to make it harder for workers to organize a union in their workplaces.
Under federal labor law, the act of voting in a union is a two-step process. First, 30 percent of workers must fill out cards authorizing a union to represent them. Then the National Labor Relations Board will call for a vote among employees. If a majority vote for union representation, the employer must recognize the union and agree to bargain with it in good faith.
The time between the "card check" and the election is where it gets dicey for workers. Employers can use various strategies to delay the election for months or even years. They can use the time to put their employees through mandatory anti-union propaganda sessions, to intimidate them, and even fire them if they do not seem to be showing the right attitude. This is illegal, of course, but penalties are laughably mild.
What EFCA would do is put teeth in federal labor law, making it painful and expensive for companies to engage in such intimidation and bad-faith practices. Most importantly, it would simplify the union authorization process by allowing for a simple card check. When a majority of employees sign a union authorization card, the union is brought in to represent the workers. Management is not allowed months to undermine the election process with firings and intimidation.
This could be the year for the Employee Free Choice Act. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged that he would sign the bill if it came to his desk. Today, Obama is sitting in the Oval Office and Democrats rule the Congress.
Corporate forces have drawn a line in the sand on this issue. It is estimated that they have raised $200 million to lobby and advertise against it. Incredibly, they have cast themselves as protectors of workers' rights, fighting to allow their employees to vote in an election that management will do everything in its power to undermine.
Republicans in Congress are in full cry, and Fox News has cranked up its campaign against EFCA. Just last week, Morton Kondracke declaimed on air, "The Employee Free Choice Act — not quite. It is the employee forced choice act."
In the weeks to come, look for a lot of ugly advertising, listen for a lot of shrill rhetoric, and be prepared to see your Republican leaders look you straight in the eye and lie about workers' rights and free choice. And ask yourself: When was the last time you heard Mark Sanford, Lindsey Graham, Jim DeMint, or Henry Brown speak up for the rights of workers? Go ahead. Ask.
See Will Moredock's blog at thegoodfight.ccpblogs.com.