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Op-Ed: Celebrate Labor Day by supporting a new law

NEW YORK (JTA) — This Labor Day, take a moment to remember people like Lupe Hernandez.

When she 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 today in our own backyards.

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 most headlines are focused on health care reform, labor law reform should stay on our agenda — specifically, the Employee Free Choice Act. This much-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 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’ right to collectively negotiate for decent wages and 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 also have 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. A visit to Rabbisforworkerschoice.org reveals the support of dozens of rabbis.

Ofer Eini, chairman of Israel’s federation of labor, the Histadrut, also has weighed in on the issue, conveying his support In a recent letter to John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.

“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," Eini wrote. "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.

“In Israel, when workers seek to bargain collectively, they just join together into a union, in the same manner that they join any other organization," he added. “When a sufficient number of workers have joined a union, they can demand recognition from their employer. If the employer refuses, the Labour Courts of Israel can investigate, and when it has determined that the required number of the workers are union members, that they have joined freely and without coercion, the court can require the employer to recognize the union."

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."

“Unlike the National Labour Court of Israel, the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] of the United States has no power to require the employer to recognize the workers’ union except by first imposing an NLRB election," he said. "But NLRB elections are a cruel violation of the fundamental principles of free and fair and secret elections. In practice, they effectively prevent workers from exercising their right to freedom of association.

“Paid supervisors are trained by anti-union consultants to act as spies in the workplace. Thousands of workers are harassed, intimidated or fired each year by employers who do everything in their power to rob workers of their right to join unions and bargain collectively.

“So long as the employer-employee relationship remains one of power imbalance 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 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?

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