Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Labor's Days

Rep. Vito Marcantonio of the American Labor Party during a dockworker strike in New York.

While political life unfolds in media both mass and minor, real life unfolds in the workplace.

Unfortunately for all of humanity there are two teams in the shop, labor and management.

Yes, they work toward the same goals, but management have keys to both the bathroom and cashbox.

For eight years or more -- sorry Clintonites -- the government has been on the side of management, investment, and capital, all different position-players on the same team.

But these are Labor's days and you can see it in the fact President Obama's favorability has already dropped 19 points to 63 percent, which confirms critics who said the promise of a new politics came from a liberal senator.

And it is hard to argue that after 30 years of conservative reign, a new politics isn't exactly what "liberal" signifies. Remember, everything that is old is new again.

Yes we'd all like Republicans and Democrats, lions and lambs, to one day join hands and sing Peter, Paul and Mary songs, but in the meantime, those of us who labor without the benefit of a loaned limousine could use a little help.

Obama to the rescue.

"I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem," he said while signing three executive orders relating to federal workers last week. "To me, it's part of the solution. You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor movement."

And right you are sir. Just look at our country. We have a weak labor movement and we have a disappearing middle class.

These executive orders, of course, will not bring back the middle class. But they will undo some rather atrocious Bush era errors, which the Obama crowd is going to waste half a term addressing.

One requires that federal contractors offer jobs to the people they've been paying all along when a contract changes. Republicans don't like this because they think a company that just got a fat contract from Uncle Sam needs "flexibility."

Obama thinks employees involved need their jobs more and doesn't want to cart money over in wheelbarrows to a government contractor that dumps its workers in turn.

Another order overturned a Bush era requirement that federal contractors inform workers that not all their dues can be used by unions for political purposes, which basically placed intricate bookkeeping burdens on labor syndicates that ought to otherwise be serving their members.

Another Bush order used your tax money to reimburse companies who tried to sway their workers from joining unions.

That can be very expensive. Companies fork over lots of money to "consultants" who have combed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) for ways of blocking workers' government-given right to organize unions.

Now, if they want to intimidate their workers, you won't have to pay what it costs them to do so.

As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich noted in this "Los Angeles Times" Op-ed, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put a willing worker's chance of forming a union at one in five.

That's not so good.

"Most of the time," noted Reich, "employees who want to form a union are threatened and intimidated by their employers. And all too often, if they don't heed the warnings, they're fired, even though that's illegal."

As Labor Secretary under Clinton, Reich learned that penalizing scofflaws is fruitless because the fines are so small that, "Too many employers consider them a cost of doing business."

That's why unions backed the Democrats and now expect them to pass the Employee Free Choice Act for Obama to sign.

That measure would allow unionization after 50 percent of a workforce signed union cards. It would also increase the fines employers would have to pay for screwing around with the right to organize.

Opponents assert the measure robs workers of the secret ballot process, but that's not necessarily true.

The unions would prefer an open process because it would strengthen their hand by permitting a certain degree of peer pressure, which is how they function.

But the measure configured by the House and Senate does not have to be exactly what the unions want. It could be card check and still be anonymous while doing away with the baroque process that has grown up around NLRA with its expensive campaigns, open ended challenges, and (again) puny penalties charged employers for obstruction.

That's what unions really want, a new scheme that isn't stacked against them.

As anyone who follows this stuff knows, even winning an election under current labor law does not obligate an employer to sit down and talk contract.

Opponents of the "card check" law point to news last week that union membership actually grew in 2008, by 428,000 members, which must naturally mean that labor law drafted in the 1930s and 1950s need not be updated.

Sure, it's good news and suggests many more might now be in unions if furnished with a balanced approach to workplace justice. But it is certainly not enough and tainted by the fact most were government employees who rarely face challenges to organizing efforts.

The facts are these: In 1983, 20 percent of the workforce was organized and today that is down to 12.1 percent. More telling, just 7.6 percent of workers in the private sector are union members.

"Los Angeles Times" writer Steven Greenhouse attributes that precipitous fall to a corresponding "drop in manufacturing jobs as a result of plant closings and pressures from imports."

Leaving aside the fact such impacts might have been softened by government policy in the first place, Greenhouse's conclusion excludes the reality of employer resistance to unionization as the workforce shifted to other sectors.

Which is why Obama chose Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) to revive the moribund Department of Labor from the deadening influence of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (Ky.) wife, Elaine Chao, the last secretary.

And it also why these Republicans:

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn) - (202) 224-4944
Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) - (202) 224-3154
Sen. Johnny Isakson (Georgia) (202) 224-3634
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) (202) 224-6665
Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) (202) 224-5251
Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.) (202) 224-4774
Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) (202) 224--5754
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) (202) 224-2235

are holding up Solis' confirmation.

They found her to be "noncommittal" at a Jan. 9 Senate Committee on Labor, Health, Education and Pensions confirmation hearing.

Specifically, GOPers didn't think she answered their questions about the "card check" law and so they provided her with written questions to which she could respond.

Here's what Solis said:

"Not all workers, of course, want or feel they need a union. But where a majority of the workers in a given workplace have decided they want a union, it is a matter of basic fairness that they should be allowed to have one. That's why I support the Employee Free Choice Act."

Now that sounds pretty specific so what's the hold up? Maybe the Republicans knew what her answer would be ahead of time and knew they wouldn't like it.

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