Too often, unions are portrayed in our culture as products of a bygone era, better suited for the days of nine-to-five industrial jobs than the more complicated global economic realities of the 21st century. It’s certainly true that organized labor has declined in recent decades—a smaller share of America’s workers belong to a labor union today than in any period since the 1930s.

But that’s not for lack of trying: Workers who organize to seek a voice at work are threatened, intimidated, and fired with increasing frequency. As writer Harold Meyerson explained in a recent article:

Firing employees for endeavoring to form unions has been illegal since 1935 under the National Labor Relations Act, but beginning in the 1970s, employers have preferred to violate the law—the penalties are negligible—rather than have their workers unionize. Today, employer violations rank somewhere between routine and de rigueur. Over half—51 percent—of employers illegally threaten workers with the specter of plant closings if employees choose to unionize (1 percent actually go through with this threat, according to Cornell University professor Kate Bronfenbrenner).

It’s outrageous enough that the world’s wealthiest nation fails so miserably to enforce its own labor laws (not to mention the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but the consequences of a declining labor movement go far beyond lofty ideals. The fate of the labor movement—which has lifted millions of working families out of poverty and into the middle class—is closely bound to the condition of "the least of these" in our society.

This makes it all the more troubling that the United States Senate missed an opportunity this week to give workers a free and fair chance to join a union by failing to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. (Click here to see how your senators voted.)

The legislation would have fixed the broken and unfair process through which workers currently form unions—in which employers are free to wage campaigns of fear and intimidation with impunity—in favor of simply requiring employers to recognize a union whenever a majority of eligible workers sign a card indicating their support. It also would have prevented employers from endlessly delaying contract negotiations, and dramatically increased the penalties they pay for breaking the law.

The good news is that the Employee Free Choice Act got further this year than ever before, passing the House and winning a 51-49 majority in the Senate (fewer than the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster), and that it is virtually certain to come back in the next Congress.

In the mean time, every 23 minutes someone in the United States will be continue to be fired or discriminated against simply for seeking to join with their fellow workers in seeking dignity and justice on the job.

Michael Sherrard is the online organizer for Sojourners/Call to Renewal. For more about the Employee Free Choice Act, check out Kim Bobo’s article, "Justice at Work," in the July issue of Sojourners, or visit American Rights at Work on the Web.

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