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Public Statements

Immigration Reform

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

IMMIGRATION REFORM -- (Senate - June 25, 2007)


Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I think we have had a very good discussion over the course of the afternoon and earlier. As I mentioned in my opening comments, a number of our colleagues spoke about this issue during the last week. So this is a matter of importance. It is a matter of economic justice and economic fairness. It is an extremely important issue, I think, a defining issue in terms of what is happening to the middle class in this country. Are they going to have voices and votes that are going to be taken seriously? Are they going to be able to participate in a meaningful way in terms of our economy? This involves their families and their future, their own personal future, their economic future, the future of their retirement, the future of their health care, and the future of their ability to be able to educate their children. So it is a very important matter.

I have been listening to the debate and the discussion. It is an interesting fact that the bill itself is only three pages long. It is only three pages long. But the difference it would make for working families is enormously significant and incredibly important. So this legislation, although it is written in some technical language, is understandable and should be. Basically, what it does is it gives the worker the kinds of expression and the rights in the workplace which increasingly they have been denied.

I wish to go over very briefly exactly how this legislation works, because if you were someone back home listening to the discussion and the debate, I think you would wonder what this legislation is all about. I thought I would take a few moments to go through this. As I mentioned, a majority sign up in a workplace for employee free choice requires the employer to recognize the union if a majority of the employees sign valid authorization cards; if the employees want to have an election, then there can be an election. The idea that has been suggested around here is that this eliminates the opportunity for free elections and that, of course, is not so. But what it is saying is that the people who are going to be the most affected by it will be able to make the decision as to whether it is going to be an open election or whether it will be the card check-off.

Then we have the instructions by the NLRB to make clear and fair rules for how that signup is to protect the workers' rights.

Then, this says, the Employee Free Choice Act brings the employers to the table within 10 days to start bargaining. The majority has indicated through the card check that they want to form a union and this is a process spelled out in this legislation about getting the employer to the table within 10 days and provides a reasonable timetable for negotiations and creates an incentive for both parties to reach an agreement and provides for mediation and binding arbitration as a last resort.

This idea we have heard during the course of the afternoon that this is going to require Government imposing a judgment and decision on companies is, of course, completely fallacious.

This is the timeline. Although it may be somewhat difficult to see, it is not enormously complicated. The union is certified, requests to bargain, it takes 10 days, and the bargaining begins. It goes on for 90 days. It can be extended. As long as there is a demonstration on both sides that they want to continue to move ahead, they will go ahead. If not, either party may request they go to mediation.

What we have found out, and history demonstrates, that 86 percent of the cases that go to mediation are actually settled. This is an extraordinary achievement and a record. So it gives full opportunity for the 90 days, continued opportunities for the sides, if they think they are making progress. If one or the other sides requests the mediation, they go to mediation. Then, only at the very end, if they are unable to get, through the mediation, if they are unable to resolve their questions in collective bargaining, then there is going to be 30 days after that which will be for the arbitration.

Now, a point that has been missed during this debate and discussion is that on the issue of arbitration, it is not in the interest of the union to put the employer out of business because they wouldn't have jobs, and it isn't in the interest of the employer to be so arbitrary that they will find they are not going to have a workforce. So there are forces that are out there to bring the situation together, and that is how it has worked in the past and is working.

The example that has been used, of course, is in our neighboring country of Canada, where it has met with great success. This is not enormously complicated, but the impact this will have in terms of permitting the 60-odd million individuals across this country who want to participate in a union to be a member of a union is dramatic.

I wish to reiterate for the membership what is happening in the real world. I explained earlier the kinds of activities employers have had to discourage, effectively to demean the workers themselves and destroy their economic life by firing them, even after there is a successful outcome in favor of a union. I wish to show what the numbers are. This is in 2005, when over 30,000 workers received backpay after the National Labor Relations Board found that employers had violated their rights--30,000 workers across the country. This isn't 5 or 6 workers, where it is happening in New England, or 4 or 5 workers down in Los Angeles or in another part of the country; this is 30,000 across the country. Thirty thousand across the country are receiving the backpay in one particular year. It demonstrates what is out there and the difficulty. That means they have been fired or their rights have been violated for being involved in union activity, to try to get an expression in their workplace, and they get fired or their rights are violated. What happens is they get fired or somehow their rights are violated, and it can be 2, 3, 4, or 5 years, luckily, if they ever get a reinstatement, so many of them become discouraged and completely drop out of the market. Now let's see, after the National Labor Relations Board says they have been harshly and illegally treated, what is the burden then on the employer to pay them? Look at this. The average backpay of those 30,000 workers, many of whom are out 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 years, is $2,660. That is the backpay. That is the average backpay for those 30,000 workers. Talk about a slap on the wrist. It is not even a slap on the wrist. This is the cost of doing business. Compare this to the unauthorized reproduction of Smokey the Bear. The penalty is $10,000 and up to 6 months in prison. This is the unfairness to American workers when they have been unfairly treated or fired, risking their family's future and their future, reinstated by the National Labor Relations Board and receiving the average pay of $2,660. So you can understand very easily why these many unscrupulous--not all, and we have given examples of informed and enlightened employers--but we can understand why many employers say go ahead, give me those firms that you have a list of, and we will take these kinds of penalties any time, rather than going ahead with the union. That is what is out there, in terms of its impact, by failing to move ahead.

We illustrated earlier in the day when it wasn't this way--when we had strong unions, speaking for working families, increase in productivity, increase in wages, and the result was that America was growing together. America was growing together toward being the strongest economy with the strongest national security in the world. The opportunities for those families to continue their being a part of what I call the march for progress, being a part of an America that was offering better opportunities than these families had or that their parents had. That was the promise of America. That isn't where we are today. We have gone through that earlier in the afternoon.

Since there have been a number of references to the National Labor Relations Board, I wish to include a letter from an extraordinary former Secretary of Labor. His name is Ray Marshall. He was an extraordinary Secretary of Labor under President Carter. He now continues to be a professor at the Johnson School of Public Affairs. He wrote, on March 21--and I will include his letter in the RECORD. I wish to mention briefly the relevant and very important part of his letter pointing out numerous studies, including those by the Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations, the Dunlop Commission. The Dunlop Commission was led by John Dunlop, who taught at Harvard Business School, a Republican, a Secretary of Labor for a number of Republican Presidents, and generally perceived to be one of the most thoughtful Secretaries of Labor we have had, in fact, over the last 50 years, and there was a Dunlop Commission which he took great pride in, in reviewing labor-management relations. That is what Ray Marshall is referring to.

He pointed out the Dunlop Commission documented the failure of American labor law to adequately protect workers' rights, bargaining rights. The National Labor Relations Act's major weaknesses include: Giving employers too much power to frustrate workers' organizing efforts through unlawful means.

This is the Dunlop Commission, former Republican Secretary of Labor, included in a letter from Ray Marshall.

No. 1: Giving employers too much power to frustrate workers' organizing efforts, often through unlawful means.

No. 2: Weak penalty for illegal actions by company representatives.

We gave an example of both of those.

No. 3: Employers' refusal to bargain in good faith after workers vote to be represented by unions.

The letter goes on. I ask unanimous consent that it be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:


Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I think these summarize the challenge and the problem and what we are trying to do to address them.

There have been comments about who will benefit--that it is going to be the union bosses who will coerce the people; the union representatives have no power over workers; the employer can fire you. He can hire you and fire you. He can decide whether you are going to have any kind of health insurance, or vacation, or paid sick leave. They are the ones who hold the whip, and we should not forget it. There is the claim that this is a payback for union leaders. It is the people who care about the workers who support this.

That brings me to this point. We have a letter from 124 religious leaders. I will read quickly part of this excellent letter:

As religious leaders, we will continue to work to disseminate within our communities of faith this message: That the right of workers to freely organize in a democracy, and families and communities are strengthened when workers can bargain for fair wages, adequate benefits, and safe working conditions.

We, as leaders of faith communities that represent the entire spectrum of U.S. religious life, call upon the U.S. Senate to bring the Employee Free Choice Act to the floor of the Senate as soon as possible. We urge that the Senate vote to pass this historic legislation as a public representation that this bill offers the best remedy to the egregious violations of workers' rights and best hope to restore to workers a voice in the workplace free from fear and harassment.

I ask unanimous consent that this letter be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:


Mr. KENNEDY. That isn't just the Senator from Massachusetts, the Senator from Vermont, or others who have spoken in favor of this. This is an open letter from 124 religious leaders, representing all of the great faiths, who are urging us as a matter of social consciousness and morality to give a voice and expression in the form of support for that legislation.

I also include a letter from 16 Governors from around the country. In part, they say:

The freedom to form and join unions is a fundamental human right protected by our constitutional freedom of association, our Nation's labor laws, and international human rights laws ..... it is a right for which millions of Americans have struggled. The freedom to form unions is of special importance to the civil and women's rights movements because unions help ensure adequate wages, health care coverage, and retirement security. It was the right to form a union that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was supporting during the Memphis sanitation strike when he was assassinated in 1968. Unions also helped to reduce the wage gap for women, people of color, and can prevent arbitrary and discriminatory employer behavior.

So 16 Governors are recommending that we move ahead with this legislation.

I ask unanimous consent that this letter be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:


Mr. KENNEDY. Finally, we have a letter from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Two hundred civil rights groups are endorsing this legislation.

In part, their letter says this:

This bill will reform the current system for selecting a union to give all working people the freedom to make their own decision about whether to choose a union and bargain for better wages and benefits. LCCR strongly believes that a healthy labor movement invests America's diverse working people with a powerful voice with which to challenge workplace discrimination and demand equality.

I ask unanimous consent that this letter also be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:


Mr. KENNEDY. So there it is. The oustanding religious leaders, the Governors, those who have been speaking out to protect and advance the cause of women and minorities in the workplace, all see this legislation as being a major consequence to economic justice to workers' rights in this country. That is why we are in such strong support of this legislation. We are hopeful we will get a strong vote on tomorrow.

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