Will Labor Come Back?

Will Labor Come Back?

Labor Day has never been a very inspiring holiday, established as it was by late-nineteenth-century union bosses as a homegrown alternative to May Day, which was viewed as having uncomfortably le

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Labor Day has never been a very inspiring holiday, established as it was by late-nineteenth-century union bosses as a homegrown alternative to May Day, which was viewed as having uncomfortably leftist, European associations. American workers today, of course, would love to have the healthcare, organizing rights and vacations enjoyed by their counterparts in most of Europe, thanks to the “radical” labor organizing traditions on that side of the Atlantic. The Bush Administration is moving in the opposite direction, although there are some hopeful signs that labor’s fighting back.

Celebrating the holiday early, in August the Bush White House and its rich friends no doubt toasted new regulations that will deprive up to 6 million additional American workers of overtime, defined as time-and-a-half pay for working more than forty hours a week. Even more disturbing, in June the Administration’s National Labor Relations Board quietly moved to “review” the legitimacy of the card-check procedure, by which an employer recognizes a union when presented with cards signed by more than half of the shop’s employees. The labor board has upheld card check many times since the 1930s, when the procedure was first established. Repealing it would effectively deprive countless Americans of the right to organize and put an immediate halt to many of labor’s most promising campaigns.

The Bush Administration might have enjoyed a champagne toast to another recent victory over workers, also engineered by its NLRB. In July the agency declared that graduate students do not have the right to organize and that under federal law they are not employees, thus abruptly reversing a legal precedent set by several earlier decisions. The decision fell sharply along party lines: The three judges voting for it were Republicans; the two dissenters were Democrats. Presidential hopeful John Kerry, meanwhile, has firmly opposed the Bush Administration on overtime as well as card check, even co-sponsoring the Employee Free Choice Act, which would require an employer to recognize a union when 50 percent of its workers sign cards. At present, recognition is up to the employer, so if enacted this bill would hugely improve workers’ chances of organizing.

These issues alone–and of course there are many more–are reason enough to applaud unions’ vigorous contribution to the defeat of George W. Bush, which has unified and energized the rank and file more effectively than anything in years. Many new organizations working to defeat Bush have strong ties to unions, including Grassroots Democrats and Voices for Working Families. Labor is also one of the major sponsors of America Coming Together (ACT), one of the year’s most dynamic 527s, devoted to mobilizing voters in seventeen swing states. With more than 1,400 paid canvassers and numerous volunteers, ACT aims to make 17 million “contacts” with swing and base voters before November. More than 50,000 SEIU members knock on doors and make phone calls for Kerry. At least 2,000 of them have taken time off from work to do so. SEIU has put some $65 million into the effort to defeat Bush, while AFSCME has contributed another $48 million.

At the same time, it’s increasingly clear that for unions to make significant advances–to grow in numbers and influence, rather than just deflect right-wing assaults and accept their diminished social and political relevance–they must also think outside the Democratic Party. The Washington Post recently quoted SEIU president Andrew Stern’s calling it a “hollow party,” lacking new ideas. Stern reportedly suggested that efforts to reform both the party and the labor movement could be damaged by a Kerry victory, sparking a furious outcry. Without specifically retracting any of those comments, Stern later, on his blog, clarified that he was “100% behind Kerry” and that he had meant that he hopes the labor movement, once Kerry wins, doesn’t “lose energy and unity.” Stern was right in both instances: If labor’s anti-Bush momentum could, post-November, be channeled into fighting for healthcare and organizing workers for the next four years–rather than dissipating under a Kerry administration–the movement would find itself much stronger.

Labor leaders are also grappling more openly with systemic problems, like the Wal-Martization of the economy–the growth in low-wage jobs offering few benefits and little promise of advancement. And at SEIU’s convention this summer, Stern implicitly acknowledged labor’s political weakness and blasted the AFL-CIO, calling for unions to work together to change the organization’s direction or build a new institution that can do a better job of fighting for workers.

Stern is part of the New Unity Partnership, a group of labor leaders recommending, among other changes, that unions work together to form bigger, more powerful organizations and run bigger campaigns. Indeed, the NUP unions are already reorganizing themselves in significant ways. Major labor unions–SEIU and the newly merged UNITE HERE–have joined forces to organize Sodexho, a dining services provider notorious for unionbusting and race discrimination. Stern also announced a $1 million commitment to coordinate local and national efforts to fight Wal-Mart’s antiworker abuses–badly needed, as Wal-Mart’s operations are highly centralized, while most people fighting it have never heard of one another.

But any successful revamping of labor strategy should also take heed of the vibrant small-scale and local organizing going on outside traditional unions: Immigrant workers nationwide, and black workers in the South–long hampered from organizing by “right to work” laws and by racism in traditional unions–have been organizing through worker centers, building power in their communities as well as on the shop floor.

These are the bright spots. But the fact that Bush became President at all, and that his heinous policies are even considered, much less enacted, is a testament to labor’s lack of power. Even within the Democratic Party, labor’s influence has waned; recall that in 1980, the party’s platform called for “full employment” and a “universal national health insurance plan.” (To hear a politician use such language today, you would have to travel to Europe, Venezuela or Cuba.) Business interests have engaged in long-term political planning for decades, so it is no wonder their needs, and theirs alone, are reflected in current policy. Can labor do the same? If so, perhaps someday Labor Day, despite its history, won’t seem like such a sham.

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