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Labor At The Dawn Of 2007: What’s Going On?

matewan.jpgI may be physically back from Winter Solstice Break, but I'm not quite mentally back, so today I'm going to ramble — kind of a stream of consciousness spew about what's happening in labor at the dawn of 2007.

Here goes:

First, let's look back at last year. Not a bad year, labor-wise. Unions were instrumental in an amazing election win that will soon give birth to minimum wage bills passing the House, and likely the Senate (even if George Will thinks the minimum wage should be zero). The House is also planning to give Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers rights that were taken away by a Bush administration that sees unions as akin to terrorists. Meanwhile, SEIU scored two major organizing wins for janitors at the University of Miami and in Houston. It was also an interesting year in workplace safety, as I explain on my home blog.

And shortly before Christmas, By a 2-1 vote, Goodyear employees ratified a new contract after an 86 day strike against the tire company. Not a total victory, but a victory non-the-less:

The U.S. contract establishes a company-financed trust fund of more than $1 billion that will secure medical and prescription drug benefits for current and future retirees, the union said. Future contributions will include cost-of-living payments and profit-sharing funds.

The new contract also requires Goodyear to drop its demand for immediate closure of its tire-manufacturing plant in Tyler, Texas. The contract provides one-year period of transition during which workers at Tyler will have the opportunity “to take advantage of sizeable retirement buyouts,” the union said.

“It took a strike, but we achieved a fair and equitable contract that protects quality health care for active and retired members,” USW Executive Vice President Ron Hoover said

Looking forward to the first 100 hours in Congress, the Christian Science Monitor describes what a raise in the minimum wage means to low income families:

Oklahoma doesn't have high living costs, compared with some other states. But to cover the basic needs of a family of four here typically requires an income of more than $33,000, according to an online budget calculator created by the liberal Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

At $5.15 an hour, it would take three full-time jobs for a family to earn that much.

Many minimum-wage workers, it's true, don't have children. Often they are young people on their first job.

But the Hosier family is not unusual. Of the workers who stand to reap higher pay if Congress raises the wage floor, the vast majority are adults, most work full-time, and about 1 in 4 have dependent children, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Moreover, they are often the sole breadwinner in the household. Of families with children, nearly half of those who would be affected by a minimum-wage hike get all their earned income from one low-wage worker.

Meanwhile, the fruits of the Democratic Chickens who refused to filibuster Bush's Supreme Court nominees may be coming home to roost asthe Supreme Court agrees to consider the constitutionality of a Washington state law that made it harder for unions to spend mandatory fees collected from nonmembers on political campaigns. The law has been overturned by the Washington State supreme court. But…

The union victory could be short-lived. Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Evergreen Freedom's challenge to the Washington state decision. The foundation hopes the court, its conservative wing bolstered by the Bush appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, will bar unions from spending any fees from nonmembers on political campaigns.

An array of antiunion groups — the Institute for Justice, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and the Pacific Legal Foundation among them — have filed briefs at the high court, hoping to strike a blow against labor's power. The Bush administration and six states with laws unfriendly to unions likewise are urging the justices to reverse the Washington state decision.

And looking ahead to 2008 (that would be the next Presidential election year, in case anyone has forgotten) candidates will, of course, be courting the labor vote (especially considering the vital role labor played in the 2006 election). Hillary and Obama may be on the tip every pundit's tongue, but it's John Edwards who's focused like a laser beam on winning labor support, according to CQ Politics:

Edwards threw his weight behind efforts to increase minimum wage levels in Ohio, Arizona and Michigan. In April, he marched a picket line with Teamsters Union President James Hoffa and service workers at the University of Miami. Last year, Edwards spoke at the national conventions for three major unions: the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win Coalition and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

It was at the latter that Edwards proclaimed the labor movement “the greatest anti-poverty program in the United States.” “I believe in a Democratic Party of big ideas . . . a Democratic Party that’s not afraid of saying the word ‘union,’” he told more than 7,000 attendees at the Teamsters’ June convention in Las Vegas, according to release from the union.

According to former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet, Edwards is "making economic populism and the value of unions part of his general message to all audiences," supporting strikes and walking picket lines. Plus, the addition of Nevada as an early primary state will help Edwards because SEIU and UNITE HERE are two unions with strong organizations in Nevada.

And it's clear that the labor movement needs someone who "gets it."

A decline in union membership may be due to a sharp rise in firing of pro-union activists during union organizing campaigns, according to a study released Thursday.

The study, by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a nonprofit think tank, analyzed published data from the National Labor Relations Board.

"Starting at the end of the 1970s, but especially by the early 1980s, American employers began to engage in the systematic and widespread use of illegal firings as a strategy to undermine the success of campaigns for union representation," the study's authors, John Schmitt and Ben Zipperer.

The authors say their paper "provides significant support" that "aggressive, even illegal, employer behavior has undermined the ability of U.S. workers to create unions at their work places.

The NLRB data used in the study comes from the agency's work reinstating workers who it finds have been illegally fired for being involved in union organizing campaigns. If the NLRB finds a worker has been illegally fired, that worker must be reinstated. The study used data on the number of NLRB-ordered reinstatements each year to calculate the probability a worker involved in union-organizing would be fired.

Using those calculations, as well as previous studies using the same series of NLRB data, the authors wrote that the probability of a pro-union worker being fired during an organizing campaign increased from .5 percent in 1970 to 1974 to 1 percent from 1996 to 2000, then rose to 1.4 percent in 2001 to 2005.

The answer to this problem, as Tula and I have written before (like here and here) is the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers the right to be represented by a union by simply signing cards instead of the traditional "secret ballot" elections that employers have become so good at delaying and exploiting. Although EFCA seems to have enough support in the House of Representatives to pass, getting 60 votes to overcome an expected filibuster in the Senate may prove to be a tougher hurdle. Whether it passes in the next two years or post-2008, it's clear that the American people need to be strongly sold on its merits.

Right now polls indicate that solid majorities support unions and oppose harassment of workers who want to join unions. People are generally supportive of the concept of card check, but they're not so sure about trashing so-called "secret ballot" elections. Secret ballot elections sound fair (in a quaint, bygone pre-hanging-chad kind of way). But much better argument for EFCA is based on "free and fair elections." Change to Win, writing in Daily Kos, describes just how unfree and unfair the current "secret ballot" NLRB elections are.

 Imagine elections in some far-off foreign land:

In this country, citizens vote periodically via secret ballot for which party will lead them. However, in this country, one party has a few… advantages:

  • It can require citizens to attend propaganda sessions demonizing all opponents, at pain of losing their jobs if they failed to attend;
  • It can legally threaten citizens with shutting down the company that employs them if they vote for the opposition;
  • It is, by law, the only party that can place literature in citizens' mailboxes, or on their doorstep — all others are prohibited;
  • It owns the property where the polls are located, and can tell individual citizens exactly when they should be at the polls to cast their vote, making it easy to associate "secret" ballots with the citizens who cast them;
  • It retains the right, if it loses the election, to appeal the results through five separate levels of bureaucracy, with no requirement that the appeals be resolved in a timely fashion, and with the government being run by them during the appeals process.

In a union election, management is that party

OK, enough for now. You get the idea.

Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space when he's in the mood and feeling obsessed with fighting injustice.

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