EMPLOYEE FREE CHOICE ACT OF 2007--MOTION TO PROCEED -- (Senate - June 25, 2007)
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Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, first, let me thank my colleague from Massachusetts, Senator Kennedy, for yielding me this time and for his leadership on behalf of working families and among the poor American workers.
I listened with great interest to the Republican leader talk about the concerns of protecting workers' rights to a secret ballot. He had one complaint. It seems this legislation is lopsided in taking away the right of a secret ballot. The Republican leader then said, well, we are going to not be quiet about this. We are going to talk about this and make sure people understand exactly what this bill does.
What I don't understand, and I think people listening to the debate will not understand and be somewhat confused about, is if you read H.R. 800, you will see the protection for a secret ballot is preserved. It is an option the workers have to be able to have a supervised election. It is still in this law. I think they are going to be more confused because we have a vote tomorrow where we are going to have a chance to bring this bill before this body where we can have a full debate and consider amendments.
Quite frankly, I have heard from a lot of my constituents about this legislation--some for, some against. Workers are concerned about the tactics being used by some employers to prevent unions from being able to collectively bargain. There are worker intimidations, where workers are fired; there are threats made that plants are going to be relocated if they dare choose to be represented by a union; there is propaganda put out by employers that is downright intimidating. Those things do happen and they deny workers the real freedom of choice.
Some employers have expressed concerns about the arbitration provisions in this legislation and about making sure they do preserve an equal opportunity to be able to talk to their employees. These are matters we can debate, if the Republican leader will allow us to bring this issue to the floor. After all, he said he wanted an open debate on this subject. Let us have an open debate. There are troubling concerns in this country. Nothing is more American than an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. America's great economic strength has been created because of fairness in the workplace, because of collective bargaining, because of the importance of workers in our economy, and effective collective bargaining. But as Senator Kennedy pointed out a few minutes ago, we have some very troubling economic trends in this country--very troubling.
Real wages for U.S. workers are lower today than they were in 1973, even though productivity has increased by 80 percent. We do pride ourselves that each generation of Americans will live a more prosperous life than in previous generations. That will not be true for a large number of Americans. Today, wages are not keeping up with productivity. There is a problem in the workforce, and it affects all of us in this country. We need to do something about it.
Real median household income in my own State of Maryland has declined by 2.1 percent from 2000 to 2005. We find a widening of the income gap in America, a widening of the wealth gap in America. We should be moving to narrow that gap, not to see it continue to increase. We have a problem we need to deal with, and this legislation, H.R. 800, gives us an opportunity to debate these issues and determine whether the decline of unionization is one of the factors in contributing to these difficult economic trends.
CEOs are now paid 411 times what workers are paid in America--411 times. In 1990, it was bad enough at 107 times--once again, a widening of the gap. I remember when I was in college talking about the strength of America. The strength of America was that in all the western economic powers we had the narrowest gap between wealth and income. Now we have the widest. We need to do something about it. Unionization helps bridge that gap.
What has happened to unionization? In 1973, 24 percent of Maryland workers worked in a company that offered union representation. In 2006, that number dropped to 13 percent.
The United States has exercised international leadership. I listened as my colleagues talked about the letters we have written to other governments. We have been the leader in saying that workers rights is an international human rights issue. It is. America should be exercising leadership internationally on these issues. Some of us have argued on trade legislation that we should be doing a better job in protecting international workers' rights. But it also starts with what we do here at home, and we should be troubled that nationwide only 12 percent of U.S. workers have a union in the workplace. Surveys show that 53 percent want to have unions in the workplace.
I listened again to what the Republican leader said about secret ballots, and I know there is a disconnect here, because, again, this legislation doesn't get rid of that. What this legislation tries to say is we want workers rights to be adhered to. If the majority wants to have a union, they should be able to have a union without intimidation
from the employer. And if the majority does not want to have a union, they should be able to do that without intimidation from the union. Both are true. But in today's workplace, it is not balanced. H.R. 800 gives us the opportunity to debate this issue and, hopefully, act on this matter.
Why do we need this? As I have pointed out, we already have documented examples. Senator Kennedy pointed out how many back wages have had to be paid because of wrongful firings. We can go through the list, but it is clear it is not effective today--not effectively giving workers a real freedom of choice.
This bill increases the penalties for illegal activities; allows the majority will of employees in joining a union; gives the framework for achieving negotiated contracts. It is a comprehensive bill. It is a bill that deals with more than just one subject, as the Republican leader keeps mentioning. It is a bill that tries to say, let us do a better job so that workers rights are protected in our economy and that workers who want to join a union are able to join that union and those who do not are equally protected.
We will never be able to get into that debate unless 60 Senators join us tomorrow to vote to bring up this issue. As the Republican leader said, this is an issue that shouldn't be kept quiet. Everybody should know where people stand on it. Tomorrow, Senators will have a right to do that by voting to bring this issue forward so we can have this debate in this body and in this Nation.
We should take every opportunity we can to act on behalf of protecting the rights of workers and working families here in this Nation. The statistics tell us we are not doing what is necessary for the growth of our economy. We need to make sure everyone prospers by our economy and we are not doing everything we need to do in that regard. That is why this Senator will vote to allow us to move forward to consider H.R. 800 when this issue is before us tomorrow.
I thank Senator Kennedy for his leadership over so many years on these issues. He has been truly our leader in trying to speak up for what this Nation should be standing for. We are proud of the economic growth of America. Let us make sure all families can prosper in that growth. Senator Kennedy has been our champion on those matters.
I urge my colleagues to support the effort to consider this legislation.
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Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I thank Senator Kennedy for those comments and those questions.
As I said, I was in college during the 1960s, and I did listen to my professors when they talked about the strength of this country, and it was unions that brought us the sensitivity in the workplace to provide health care benefits for people who never had health care insurance, who brought retirement plans for people who didn't have economic security when they retired. We made tremendous progress during the 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s as more people got health insurance and as retirement plans were readily available to workers.
When we look at the record today, we find 46 million people without health insurance and we know there has actually been a reduction of employer-provided health benefits in this country. Every year more and more of the cost of health care is being put on the backs of the employees. There has been an erosion of middle-income families being able to afford health care, so many are now forced into bankruptcy because they can't pay for health care bills.
For two-thirds of Americans, when they retire, Social Security is their largest source of income. It was never intended to be that way.
We always thought private retirement would be a major security for people when they retired. We have not met those goals. So we have a shrinking middle class in America, and the middle class is critically important, as Henry Ford said, for the manufacturers and producers and farmers to be able to sell their wares here in America. To have economic strength, you need to have the middle class. You need to have the sharing of wealth among the people of this country, and we do not have that in America today. We are moving in the wrong direction. I think that is what troubles me the most. I know how important a growing middle class is to an economy, to the economic strength of our entire country, so everyone can benefit from this great economy. I agree, we have a great economy. We are the strongest economy in the world. But we have to tend to it, we have to deal with it. Protecting the growth of worker rights will help everyone in our economy, including the owners of our large companies. That is what is so troublesome about this debate. It is not employers versus employees. We want a level playing field. We want companies to grow in America because we want more good jobs in America and we want employees to be able to get fair compensation for their work. That is what this debate should be about.
I thank the Senator from Massachusetts for bringing this issue forward because it really does talk about what type of country we want for our children and our grandchildren.
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Mr. CARDIN. The Senator is absolutely right. To bring home the reason this is needed today, 53 percent of workers would like to have a union in their employment. Only 12 percent today have union opportunities. The will of the worker today is not being adhered to because of the tactics used by some employers to prevent a fair and open process for employees to choose a union.
Just to underscore one more time, this is allowing the employees to have the freedom of choice. We will never be able to get to a full debate unless we get the opportunity to proceed with this legislation, and that is what this vote is about. I think the point of the Senator is very well taken. This is not taking away private, secret ballots. That is still an option which is available to the employees. But it allows the employees to have a level playing field, which in many cases today is not true.
Mr. KENNEDY. I thank the Senator for an excellent presentation.
I see my colleagues desiring to address the Senate. I withhold.
Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I yield the floor.