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Labor’s High Hopes


Organized labor is rightly claiming a major role in the Nov. 4 victories of President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats – and is rightly expecting much in return.

 

The figures are impressive.  One-fifth of all voters were union members or in union households, and fully two-thirds of them supported Obama, a ratio even higher in battleground states.

 

The AFL-CIO calculates that more than a quarter-million volunteers campaigned among their fellow union members and others, discussing the issues that were of particular importance to working people, drumming up support for Obama and other labor-friendly Democrats and, finally, getting labor voters to the polls on election day.

 

The AFL-CIO’s figures show that the volunteers knocked on some 10 million doors, made 70 million telephone calls, handed out 27 million leaflets and mailed out 57 million more. There was scarcely a union member or union household anywhere that was not reached.

 

The number of union voters reached a record high of more than 3 million. The labor federation claims they  "made the difference in critical states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and so many others." Maybe they did, maybe not – but it is clear that organized labor significantly influenced the vote.

 

Not all of labor’s favored candidates won, but enough of them did to assure unions of labor-friendly majorities in the House and Senate.

 

You can be sure unions will be asking a lot of their congressional friends, as well as of their friend in the White House. They want "a new economic agenda," says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. He says, "We need to rethink the rules and strategies of our economy. We need changes attuned to today’s world that are as bold and as visionary as the economic changes FDR made so many decades ago."

 

Sweeney anticipates that the AFL-CIO will work closely with the Obama administration and Congress to shape the agenda and meanwhile will keep in place its mobilization structure to help press labor’s case.

 

"Working men and women are poised to keep the energy pumping to help the Obama administration lead the change we need," Sweeney promised. " There will be no gap or letdown."

 

Labor’s specific wishes are many, including steps to stimulate the faltering economy, such as extending the unemployment benefits of workers who have used up their eligibility, broadening the food stamp program, rebuilding and repairing the crumbling infrastructure, and making grants to state and local governments that have been hit by heavy revenue losses. Unions also want to extend health care coverage to many more Americans, and raise the taxes of high-income earners to narrow the income gap between the wealthy and others that has expanded greatly during the Bush presidency.

 

Above all, labor is demanding passage of the pending Employee Free Choice Act that could guarantee millions of Americans the right to unionize that has long been denied them — the main reason only about 12 percent of American workers are in unions, despite the much higher pay, benefits and other advantages of membership.

 

Employers routinely violate the current labor laws by firing or otherwise disciplining those who support or attempt to organize unions. Penalties, if any, are slight. Workers, in any case, fear complaining about violations because to do so is to risk employer retaliation.

 

The Free Choice Act calls for much stiffer fines, swiftly imposed, new penalties on employers who violate workers’ rights and requires that employers who stall in bargaining for union contracts will have the terms dictated by an arbitrator. The 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 usually done. The law was like that originally, with no lengthy election campaigns and thus much less opportunity for employers to intimidate workers.

 

The Free Choice Act cleared the House easily last year, but could not get the 60-vote majority needed to overcome a filibuster by Senate Republicans. The prospects are much better now, with strong support promised by a majority of congressional Democrats, as well as Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who were among the measure’s co-sponsors when they were in the Senate.

 

Obama’s support is consistent with his pro-labor approach. He also supports virtually all of labor’s other specific wishes, among them prohibiting employers from permanently replacing strikers and raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, so it would rise as the cost-of-living rises. He promises, as well, to reverse decisions by the Bush-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board that have taken union rights from thousands of workers and says that, unlike Bush appointees, his appointees to positions dealing with unions will support workers’ rights.

 

Rarely has labor had higher or more realistic expectations.

 

 

Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.

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