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Payback Time for Labor


For more than a decade, Congress has paid little attention to the labor issues that affect millions of Americans. But that will change dramatically when the new Democratically-controlled Congress convenes in January.

Organized labor’s all-out campaign in behalf of victorious Democratic candidates in the midterm elections this month made that a certainty. It was the most extensive, most expensive Â- and most successful — such campaign in labor history. It also seems likely to end up as labor’s most rewarding.

Congress’ new Democratic majority owes much to unions, which spent more than $100 million on the campaign. They put more than 100,000 members to work registering and turning out voters, distributing leaflets, and contacting an estimated 13 million voters directly.

The result was crucial for Democrats. One-fourth of all voters were union members, and they favored Democratic candidates over their Republican opponents by a margin of three to one. The Democratic majority in congressional races was 6.8 million, and union households provided 5.6 million or 80 percent of that margin.

Congress understandably will pay close attention to the legislative wishes of supporters with clout like that.

It’s also clear that unions will work hard to make sure that Democrats do indeed keep the promises that prompted such extraordinary labor effort.

“Working people elected these men and women,” says AFL- CIO President John Sweeney, “and we’re going to unite our country behind them to renew economic opportunities for all. We can and will change the course of this country.”

Labor’s wish list is long and ambitious, dealing with issues that are of great importance to most people, union members or not. The AFL-CIO, for instance, is demanding that Congress:

* Raise the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour to $7.25.

* “Make affordable health care a reality for all,” in part by allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for cheaper prescription drugs.

* Guarantee decent retirement benefits to all workers, including those whose employers declare bankruptcy.

* Tighten and intensify enforcement of job safety regulations in mines and other workplaces.

* “Revitalize manufacturing.”

* Create “an immigration system that protects the rights of all workers.”

* Ban the awarding of federal contracts to companies that outsource jobs and instead reward those “that create jobs at home.”

* Approve fair trade laws that “hold nations accountable when they violate workers’ rights” and other human rights and endanger the environment.

* “Bring our troops home from Iraq rapidly” and develop “a real plan to fight the war on terror.”

* Increase college student loans, revise President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and otherwise strive to “give a world-class education to every child.”

* Reverse the recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that allows employers to deny union rights to workers by classifying them as “supervisors.”

Labor is above all demanding that Congress finally pass the long-pending Employee Free Choice Act. It would greatly increase penalties on the many employers who illegally discipline workers who seek union rights and would otherwise make it easier for workers to unionize and thus bargain for a higher wage and better health care, pensions and other benefits.

Like many other AFL-CIO proposals, the bill has had the backing of most congressional Democrats, notably including incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Labor, meanwhile, is not resting on its newly won political laurels. The AFL-CIO will hold an “Organizing Summit” in Washington next month to plan a campaign that would give unions even more political strength by significantly increasing their membership. Unions will add at least $150 million a year to their organizing budgets to finance the campaign.

Copyright (c) 2006 Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer who has covered labor and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.

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