Good News for Labor Unions

Anna Burger, chair of Change to Win, sees the labor movement in the happy if confusing position of picking among candidates who all see that “unions are the solution, not the problem.” Karen Ackerman, the political director of the AFL-CIO, sees labor’s opening as arising from “a new environment … coming off the Reagan years and the Bush years and a ‘you’re on your own’ trickle-down philosophy.”

Thus the paradox on Labor Day 2007: At a moment of organizational weakness, labor’s political influence and ideological appeal may be as strong as at any time since the New Deal. Every Democrat running for president seems to know this.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: A new dawn for labor

The EFCA [Employee Free Choice Act] would restore some meaning to the right to organize. The bill that has been passed by the House by is currently being blocked by a Republican filibuster in the Senate. While the EFCA is not likely to become law under this Congress (President Bush would almost certainly veto the bill even if it did pass), progressives should recognize the importance of legislation. The right to organize is not the concern of just a small special interest group; it is a basic right that should concern us all. In the same vein, all progressives have an interest in seeing a strong labor movement. For this reason, the EFCA and other measures that level the playing field between labor and management should be top items on the progressive agenda.

The Right to Unionize: Key to Democracy By Dean Baker

There’s always a gaggle of articles about unions just before, on, and then after Labor Day, for obvious reasons. So I have spent the last week reading some of them and I am happy to report that there may well be good news. Dionne makes the very good point that most new union members are in the public sector, which is for obvious reason tied closely to electoral politics.

In fact, while overall union membership has reached an all time low of just 7.4%, according to Baker, unionization in the public sector is up to 36%. Dionne makes the point that these public sector unions are well-organized and that they have so successfully made the case for reform that all of the current democratic candidates support legal changes (to one degree or another) that would make organizing easier.

Baker makes the case for the EFCA, for example, which would make it much easier to create unions. In fact, he estimates that if the polls are correct a simpler unionization process could quickly add more than 30 million union members. Baker also shows how so-called liberal trade drove primary manufacturing overseas, helping to undermine unions while creating a $700 billion trade deficit.

Baker also emphasizes that unionization is good for the economy as a whole. “In an industry with a strong union presence,” Baker writes, “non-union firms know they must maintain comparable wages and benefits if they are want to keep their workers from joining a union.” While it seems unlikely that the Bush administration would allow the EFCA into law, if the next administration is Democratic, which seems likely, it will be high on their agenda. Even before the elections, there are signs that labor unions’ long misfortunes are beginning to turn around.

Change to Win, for example, has been celebrating a recent Executive Order signed by Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York that will create a commission to try to address the “misclassification” of workers as independent contractors in order to avoid social security taxes and workers compensation insurance, among other things. It’s just a start, but maybe the wind is shifting in our favor.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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