American unions are celebrating Labor Day this year with greater expectations for a resurgence than they’ve had in many years, thanks to their political allies.
Labor is aiming for a sharp reversal of what has been a steady decline in union membership and influence, and expects to get it with the active support of influential Democrats led by presidential candidate Barack Obama and key members of Congress.
What unions want most from the Democrats is the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, which would knock down the barriers that have stunted union growth for most of the past half-century, so that today only about 12 percent of the nation’s workers belong to unions.
Obama and many other Democrats have already lined up behind the proposed law, and unions are mounting major campaigns aimed at turning out more than 13 million union-oriented voters to help elect them and any other Democrats who will join them.
Many employers, aided and abetted by the notoriously anti-labor Bush administration, have been able to make union membership meaningless, if not impossible, by illegally interfering in unionization drives.
The National Labor Relations Act, which was enacted as a way to encourage unionization during the grim economic days of the 1930s, has become feeble and so poorly enforced that it’s routinely violated.
Employers spy on union organizers, fire or threaten to fire or otherwise discipline pro-union workers, force employees to attend meetings at which they rail against unions, and sometimes threaten to lay off workers or even go out of business if employees unionize. Workers who complain risk retaliation and can expect little or no help from the government.
The Employee Free Choice Act calls for much stiffer fines of up to $20,000 per violation for such employer violations of workers’ union rights. The act’s key provision would automatically grant union recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an employer’s workers, rather than holding an election, as is now done in most cases. The law was like that originally, with no lengthy election campaigns and thus much less opportunity for employers to intimidate workers.
The act came close to passage last year, clearing the House handily but failing to get the 60-vote majority needed to overcome a filibuster by Republican opponents in the Senate.
Opponents included GOP presidential nominee John McCain, who the AFL-CIO rightly considers an enemy of labor.
McCain’s record shows he favors seriously weakening, if not eliminating, the worker’s right to strike, by allowing employers to simply replace strikers – permanently. He also has favored a proposed right-to-work law that would endanger unions everywhere, and has voted against granting full union rights to thousands of government employees.
Obama, one of the Employee Free Choice Act’s chief Senate sponsors, promises to maintain his unequivocal for the measure if he makes it to the White House and to otherwise "strengthen the ability of workers to organize unions."
He says his appointees to positions dealing with unions would support workers’ rights, unlike Bush’s appointees to those posts, and that he’d try to reverse decisions by the Bush-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board that have taken union rights from thousands of workers.
Obama says he’d work as well to prohibit employers from permanently replacing strikers and would seek to increase the minimum wage and index it to inflation so it would rise as the cost-of-living rose.
He promises to negotiate trade agreements that would guarantee workers fair treatment, promises to try to discourage companies from sending jobs overseas, and promises to try to create at least two million jobs in this country through a public works program designed to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
No wonder unions are waging what’s shaping up as probably the most expensive and extensive political campaign in labor history in support of Obama and the like-minded Democratic candidates for Congress. It’s expected to end up costing even more than the $66 million union campaign that played a major role in the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections.
More than 100,000 unionists joined in that effort, registering and turning out voters, circulating millions of leaflets, contacting millions of voters directly, staging innumerable rallies and demonstrations, and more. Union members also accounted for nearly one-fourth of all voters, and they favored Democratic candidates by a margin of three-to-one.
This time, labor is seeking even greater rewards – a filibuster-proof Democratic Congress and one of the most labor-friendly presidents ever. It’s possible, even probable. What more could labor ask on its day of celebration?
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com