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Free choice for workers

President-elect Obama will face many controversial decisions when he's sworn in as our nation's 44th president on Jan. 20.

President-elect Obama will face many controversial decisions when he's sworn in as our nation's 44th president on Jan. 20.

From the perspectives of the national labor movement and big-business owners, perhaps no decision is more hotly anticipated than the fate of the Employee Free Choice Act

(EFCA). The ultimate decision will dramatically affect, for better or for worse, the future of America's struggling middle class.

EFCA would enable working people to bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions by restoring workers' freedom to choose for themselves whether to join a union. Currently, elections for unionization are overseen by the National Labor Relations Board and require that employees cast pro or con votes in a secret-ballot process.

Proponents of the current system argue that the 73-year-old NLRB Act works just fine and should be left alone. Critics - the labor movement chief among them - argue that the current system is fraught with employer coercion and intimidation.

The merits and potential pitfalls of the EFCA will be passionately debated for some time to come. One positive aspect of the act, however, should be indisputable: It is open, fair and transparent. With an increasing emphasis on good-government practices at the city, state and federal levels, a new law that emphasizes openness and transparency should be widely embraced.

Corporations and owners of businesses of various sizes are leery of the EFCA, fearing it would give labor an unfair advantage in organizing.

I would respectfully suggest to those skeptics that their greater concern should be the continued erosion of America's middle class, increasing unemployment and additional financial burdens on the nation's businesses in the form of skyrocketing unemployment compensation.

At its core, EFCA is about maintaining the American middle class. It should come as a surprise to no one that, as union membership has declined, so too have the number of family-sustaining jobs, replaced by low-paying jobs with poor benefits and little security.

Consider all that the national labor movement has helped to achieve for working-class Americans. Social Security has provided 44 million workers with unemployment insurance, aid to dependent children and rehabilitation for the physically disabled. It also has improved public health and provided pensions to workers in their old age.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination by employers or unions on the basis of race, national origin, color, religion or gender. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 gave sweeping protections to workers - establishing the minimum wage and the eight-hour work day, providing for overtime and prohibiting the use of child labor.

THE LABOR movement helped to create - and continues to protect - America's middle class.

And it's time for our nation to provide relief for the middle class. We pay for our children's education. We pay for our own health care. We need help - now. Without a thriving middle class, our nation will continue to suffer.

Despite the protests of corporations and the nation's wealthiest individuals, the passage of EFCA will not open the floodgates to union organizing. It guarantees only fairness and transparency in the process.

Without labor-law reform, economic opportunity for America's working families will continue to disappear. And that will benefit no one. *

William F. Keller, a Democrat from Philadelphia, is a Pennsylvania state representative. He represents the 184th Legislative District.