Sometimes an opportunity for reform comes along that is "strategic" in that it changes the playing field for efforts to win other reforms in the future. Passage of the National Labor Relations Act – establishing the right of American workers to organize unions and bargain collectively – was a strategic reform. It increased the power of people previously excluded from power, and thereby reduced the power of corporate interests.
But the right of workers in America to organize has been steadily eroded by unpunished abuses by anti-union employers. Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is easy to justify on the basis of guaranteeing the basic human rights of working Americans. When the Employee Free Choice Act is signed into law, millions of private-sector workers will have greater protection from having their rights violated.
What difference would that make? Ask Steve Arney. He used to be a reporter at the Bloomington Pantagraph, a newspaper in Illinois owned by Lee Enterprises.
A majority of employees at the Pantagraph signed cards to support forming a union with the St. Louis Newspaper Guild. Lee Enterprises responded with a campaign to defeat the effort.
As part of Lee’s anti-union campaign, Steve Arney lost his job.
Arney had worked at the Pantagraph for sixteen years. He’d been a writer in various departments, and had had excellent evaluations. At the time of the organizing drive, he was working as a Features writer. Arney says:
"They said I was selected because they had decided to cut a job in Features, and I had the least seniority among three people who were writing for Features. To which I responded, ‘Well, we know that’s a lie, because I can work in any other department in the newsroom.’ I had proven year after year that I was a very versatile reporter. I was selected because I was involved in the union, it’s just that simple."
Firing someone for supporting a union is a violation of federal labor law. So, if Lee Enterprises fired Steve Arney for supporting a union, then Lee Enterprises should have gotten in trouble, right?
Here’s what Steve Arney says about that:
"I had to take the severance, because I didn’t make enough to save up a bunch of money. So I accepted the severance, so I lost my right to sue. Had I sued, the outcome, at best, two and half years later, the way the system is rigged for the companies right now, I would have got my job back. Two and a half years later. After appeals, and fights, and all kinds of headaches. I would have been a fool not to take the severance. So they can say, ‘Well, our hands are clean.’ They aren’t. They’re dirty."
Eldon Smith worked at the Pantagraph as a shortage driver. "I delivered papers to people that did not get their papers," he says. "I had had several comments that I was one of the best shortage drivers that they had ever had."
About two weeks after he marched in a pro-union rally, Smith says, "they called me in and told me I was working too many hours, and they cut my hours back." After cutting his hours again, they told him his job was being eliminated. "There is no question in my mind why my job was eliminated," Smith says.
How will the Employee Free Choice Act change this situation? Anti-union employers will have less freedom to intimidate people – a key reason that anti-union employers oppose the Employee Free Choice Act. Arney says:
"They’ll lose half a year … from the time that we turn in our cards that say our company workers want a union, and then for the next weeks – and then they delay it – for the next months, they cajole, badger, intimidate, fire people … make life miserable for people who are in favor of collective bargaining. So the deck is stacked right now for management, and they want that deck continually stacked for them. They don’t care about our secret ballot. They care about their power and their profit."
These are examples of Americans whose basic human rights are being violated today, whose rights would be protected under the Employee Free Choice Act. Tens of millions of private-sector workers who don’t have union contracts today would benefit, both because they could more easily form unions, and because the threat of unionization would drive up wages and benefits overall.
But suppose you’re not a nonsupervisory private-sector worker or that you don’t believe you’ll ever be in a union, or that your working conditions will be directly affected by the prospect that you might join one. Apart from your belief in fairness and in protecting the rights of others, do you have a stake in passage of the Employee Free Choice Act?
Absolutely you do. If it bothers you that corporations have too much power in Washington, if you want to see the kinds of reforms in America that people hoped for during the Obama campaign, you have a huge stake in passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
Look at the northern European countries. They seem so different from the United States. Universal health care. Very little poverty. Better education. Better family leave and childcare policies. What do these countries have in common?
Working people in these countries have more political power than working people in the United States.
If the Employee Free Choice Act becomes law, more working people in America will join unions, and as America’s labor unions become stronger, working people in America will have more political power, as they do in northern Europe. That’s why there’s a wall of opposition from Wall Street. It’s not just about wages and benefits. Wall Street financial institutions don’t pay their employees so badly. It’s about the political power of working people – including the power to rein in corporations. And that’s key to many other domestic reforms. If there were a more powerful counterweight to the insurance industry’s political power, we’d already have universal health care. If there were a more powerful counterweight to Wall Street’s political power, there might not have been a housing bubble and a financial crisis, and even if there were, we’d be restructuring the banks now instead of bailing them out with hundreds of billions in tax dollars. If there were a more powerful counterweight to the political power of the pharmaceutical industry, we’d all be paying Canadian prices for prescription drugs.
But suppose what really moves you is reforming US foreign policy. You’re tired of the US being an international outlaw, invading other people’s countries, bombing their villages, killing their children, toppling their governments, killing America’s youth in the process. Do you have any stake in passage of the Employee Free Choice Act?
Absolutely you do.
At any point in time, the folks who want peace have to oppose new and ongoing wars with whomever is available. You oppose war with the peace movement you have, not the peace movement you might like to have, as Donald Rumsfeld might say. But in the long run, we’re never going to get a foreign policy that truly reflects the values and interests of the majority of Americans until working people in America – the vast majority of the population – have more political power.
This might not be so obvious for people who don’t know the full history of the labor movement in America. The AFL-CIO backed the Vietnam War. Why would US foreign policy improve if the labor movement had more power?
But the labor movement that existed in the early years of the Vietnam War was a historical anomaly that didn’t drop down from the sky. It was the product of a deliberate government and employer campaign after the Second World War to destroy the most-progressive wing of the labor movement. A key motivation for that campaign of destruction was removing domestic political obstacles to foreign military and economic policies the US government intended to pursue – policies that weren’t in the interests of the majority of Americans.
Prior to the purge, there was no boundary between the labor movement and what we know today as the peace and international solidarity movements. Saul Alinsky described the labor movement scene in the thirties this way in his 1971 book, "Rules for Radicals":
"The agendas of those labor union mass meetings were 10 percent on the specific problems of that union and 90 percent speakers on the conditions and needs of the southern Okies, the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigade, raising funds for blacks who were on trial in some Southern state, demanding higher relief for the unemployed, denouncing policy brutality, raising funds for anti-Nazi organizations, demanding an end to American sales of scrap iron to the Japanese military complex, and on and on."
The labor movement that exists today may be a far cry from your grandfather’s labor movement that existed in the 1930′s. But it’s also a far cry from your father’s labor movement that existed in the 1960′s.
Part of the ferment in America’s labor unions that led to the election of John Sweeney as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995 was longstanding anger at the previous AFL-CIO leadership’s relationship to anti-worker US foreign policies – ineffective opposition in some cases, active collaboration in others. There was a lot of outrage at the failure to effectively fight the anti-worker NAFTA agreement. But that was just the most prominent among a list of grievances relating to US foreign policy.
Since Sweeney’s election, opposition to anti-worker US foreign policies has been more vigorous. In 1997 – under Clinton – organized labor and its allies defeated the renewal of "fast-track" authority to negotiate anti-worker trade agreements. Today the labor movement is at the center of efforts to block the anti-worker Colombia trade agreement. And immediately after taking office, Sweeney shut down parts of the AFL-CIO’s international apparatus that had supported brutal, anti-worker US government policies overseas, including the CIA-linked AIFLD.
In January 2007, President Sweeney denounced President Bush’s proposed military escalation in Iraq. In March 2007, the General Executive Council of the AFL-CIO called for the end of the US military occupation of Iraq and a timetable for withdrawal of US forces. The AFL-CIO statement played a significant role in aligning Democrats in Congress in favor of a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq. And insistence by Democrats in Congress – especially presidential candidate Barack Obama – in favor of a timetable for withdrawal decisively strengthened the hand of the Iraqi government in successfully demanding a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq from the Bush administration.
The internal struggles over the US labor movement’s foreign policies are by no means over and likely never will be. But the direction of motion is towards an American labor movement that increasingly opposes foreign military and economic policies that are against the interests of the majority, increasingly challenges anti-worker institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and increasingly supports international solidarity to lift up workers around the world. And a dramatic expansion in the ranks of organized labor in America – which will disproportionately pull in the most disadvantaged sectors of the labor force, including recent immigrants who maintain links to their former countries – will help keep organized labor moving in a progressive direction on foreign policy. That’s why Americans who want to end US foreign policies based on war and corporate domination – and who want to enact policies based on peace, economic development and diplomacy – have a big stake in passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
Robert Naiman is senior policy analyst at Just Foreign Policy.