Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Labor in Obama-land

The other day I spent a couple of hours at a meeting of union activists at which a pretty good crowd listened to speakers about the Employee Free Choice Act. Unhappily, I came away worried that this proposed law, organized labor's primary Congressional agenda item, is not going to see smooth sailing.

What's the Employee Free Choice Act about? Easy, it's about making it more difficult and more expensive for employers to bully, harass and intimidate workers who want to form a union. The law would
  • increase penalties for violations of labor law. At present anti-union employers consider the minimal penalties a cost of doing business.
  • Allow employees to win union representation by majority sign up (so-called card check) instead of forcing them into a months long election process during which the people who control their pay checks can use any combination of threats and lies to try to break the organizing drive.
  • Require that, if employees do join a union, the company must either agree to a contract in three months or submit the labor dispute to neutral arbitration.
That is, the Employee Free Choice Act is about leveling a playing field that is currently tilted heavily against some of the hardest working, lowest paid, least listened to workers in the country. How's some car washer or hotel maid going to get a fair shake without a union? Not likely.

So why do I fear this reasonable measure is in trouble? Partly because the sort of meeting I was in, full of the best and most active unionists, was just getting up to speed on what it is about -- and that's people inside the labor movement. Speakers agreed that if it doesn't get done fast, business will be able to bottle it up. In areas where Congresscritters and Senators can be swayed, millions of dollars are already committed to TV ads against passage.

But I'm also worried when I survey the terrain on which labor is trying to win relief. I read things like this from a writer I often find perceptive.

To us (or to me anyway), the old class wars seemed quaint -- if not inaccessible. Unions were fine, I guess, but they seemed relics of a bygone era -- unnecessary in the new dynamic global economy ... Unlike those silly union organizers in the 30s, big modern me had the good fortune of living in an era enlightened by the Chicago School about both the virtues of wealth concentration and the vices of regulation.

Being sympathetic to the old Left ...was something that respectable knowledge workers like myself didn't do. ... I was something different -- I was a Silicon Valley liberal. And so I felt the temptation to ostentatiously distance myself from the ancien regime by, say, criticizing the UAW or pooh-poohing the Great Society...

He's got it that with the economic downturn, he might have to examine his preconceptions, but with this as a starting point, he's going to have a ways to go before he considers passing labor law reform an important priority.

And he's not uncommon. I saw the same detachment from labor's agenda at the Obama 2.0 meeting I attended awhile back.

I think it is accurate to describe the Obama coalition as having been composed of four major groups. (This typology owes a lot to Carl Davidson's observations.) Many campaign offices were organized and run by "Obama youth" -- very young, mostly white but accustomed to somewhat multi-racial environments, true believers in "change" and "yes, we can!". In addition, there was the Black community, energized and involved as never before, performing miracles of activism and turnout. Then there were the Democratic regulars, what passes for the party apparatus where such a thing exists, eager for a bigger slice of the governmental pie. Finally there was the huge labor field operation that turned out its own base and increased Obama's (minority) share of the white working class vote.

Only the last of these segments considers the Employee Free Choice Act important. The others will be supportive with a nod from the President-elect. But they won't go to war for it and anti-union employers will. That prospect is not encouraging.

Tim Costello at Global Labor Strategies has written an interesting piece about how he sees labor missing the boat despite being a necessary part of electing a "change" President. [My emphasis.]

In the run-up to this year's election organized labor made a plan to pour its resources into electing a Democratic President and Congress and then to push for the enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act ... . They did a terrific job during the election; in some key areas labor was the difference between victory and defeat for the Democrats.

Then with unexpected abruptness September's financial collapse provided the accelerant for a general economic crisis that had been smoldering for more than a year. Since then, labor has been unable to adapt to the changed circumstances. ... With the exception of a few public pronouncements on the crisis, labor leaders have retained an almost single minded focus on passage of EFCA. Meanwhile people are losing their jobs and getting kicked out of their homes in record numbers, while others -- from the high skilled to the low skilled, white collar and blue collar -- walk a financial tightrope, in high anxiety, without a net.

And no matter what one thinks of EFCA or the possibility of its passage in a meaningful form, it is not an adequate response to the current crisis. In the most wildly optimistic scenario, any benefits from EFCA -- and we think they will be modest, but important -- are a year or two down the road. ...

The labor movement historically has two functions: to represent workers in the workplace through collective bargaining, and, to be the socially sanctioned representatives of the general economic interests of workers in public discourse. It is this second role -- as a representative of all workers -- that labor now needs to assume. What is needed at this moment of crisis is a new spirit in the labor movement and a new kind of unionism that addresses the needs of all workers and combines the mass mobilizing and protest techniques of modern social movements with an alternative vision of economic reconstruction from the bottom up. ...

Costello is almost certainly right. The labor movement is full of people who know that -- as well as others who can't imagine mustering that much sheer energy and enthusiasm for a desperate fight. In part they are hampered in taking up the role of the voice of the working people at large by the natural legacy of decades of bad labor law: they've had to be so good at manipulating the minutia of legalisms that they have forgotten how to look around at the forest.

We can count on labor to try -- but labor also needs the rest of us in the Employee Free Choice Act fight and to insist on wider perspectives. It's one of those situations where, if the people move, our leaders may follow ...


Carl Davidson said...

You're exactly on target here. EFCA is critical, but there's more than that. Labor needs to mobilize with a broader voice. Once it moves, it will find it has more allies than it may think. And thanks for the reference; you've got that right, too.

Nell said...

Costello's formulation is too either-or. Make the Employee Free Choice Act part of the broader vision: workers having the say in their conditions of work, ordinary citizens having the say in what government does...

Nell said...

Also: I can't tell if you're aware of it or not, but publius has written several pro-EFCA posts. Passage is a high priority for him, despite his background -- that was pretty much the point of the post you quoted.

But, granted, he's atypical, and the ideological background he describes is very widely shared.

janinsanfran said...

Nell -- thanks for commenting. From your response, I learn that I have not made it nearly clear enough that I understand that the guy (publius) I quote who was exemplifying a shallow, anti-union point of view was actually trying to help -- to illustrate how peoples' thinking might move. Publius was trying to do the right thing in the post I quote and I should have honored that more. The reason it is such a good description of common attitudes is that he has moved beyond them.

And gosh, I may have rendered Costello too starkly as well. I didn't read him as nearly as either-or as you do. But I may be wrong.

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