Back to the Future: Union Survival Strategies in Open Shop America

by Steve Early and Rand Wilson
The rupture of labor-management relationships that may have been “comfortable” in the past, plus the accompanying loss of legal rights in a growing number of states, have triggered membership-mobilization activity reminiscent of the original struggles for collective bargaining. In Wisconsin and elsewhere, labor’s recent defensive battles demonstrate that a new model of union functioning is not only possible but necessary for survival. As a first step in this process of union transformation under duress, workers must definitely shed their past role as “clients” or passive consumers of union services. In workplaces without a union or agency shop and collective bargaining as practiced for many decades, they must take ownership of their own organizations and return them to their workplace roots, drawing on the experiences of public workers in the South whose practice of public-sector unionism has, by necessity, been very different for the last half century.
When the history of mid-western de-unionization is written, its sad chroniclers will begin their story in Indiana. That is where Governor Mitch Daniels paved the way, in 2005, for copycat attacks on public-sector bargaining in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan — and for a successful assault on privatesector union security in his own state earlier this year.

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Labor’s Hail Mary Pass

By Harold Meyerson

This is a maddening time for anyone concerned about the lives of working-class Americans. The frustration and anger that suffused AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s declaration last week that labor would distance itself from the Democratic Party was both clear and widely noted. Not so widely noted has been a shift in the organizing strategy of two of labor’s leading institutions — Trumka’s AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union — that reflects a belief that the American labor movement may be on the verge of extinction and must radically change its game.

It took a multitude of Democratic sins and failures to push Trumka to denounce, if not exactly renounce,the political party that has been labor’s home at least since the New Deal. In a speech at the National Press Club last Friday, Trumka said that Republicans were wielding a “wrecking ball” against the rights and interests of working Americans. But Democrats, he added, were “simply standing aside” as the Republicans moved in for the kill.

The primary source of labor’s frustration has been the consistent inability of the Democrats to strengthen the legislation that once allowed workers to join unions without fear of employer reprisals. American business has poked so many holes in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act that it now affords workers no protections at all. Beginning with Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, every time the Democrats have held the White House and strong majorities in both houses of Congress, bills that strengthened workers’ rights to unionize have commanded substantial Democratic support — but never quite enough to win a Senate supermajority. And during that time, the unionized share of the private-sector workforce has dwindled from roughly 30 percent to less than 7 percent.
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What Kind of Workers’ Movement?

by Paul Garver

Carl Finamore already reviewed Steve Early’s The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor for Talking Union.  I’d like to comment further on this important book, focusing on the issue of the organizational structures needed to rebuild the workers’ movement in the current context.

Should we be reflecting on our own weaknesses and sources of disunity while an implacable external enemy is threatening our very existence?  We are in a war for the very survival of public sector unionism, as right wing ideologues financed by billionaire foes of all working people are assailing this bastion of any conceivable progressive revival in the USA. We are encouraged that private and public sector unions stand united, while communities and campuses are mobilizing in their support.  But even in a hot phase of the class war there are lulls in the battle that permit some reading and reflection.  Reading Early’s book help us understand that our own weaknesses and dysfunctional behavior contributed to our current crisis. Continue reading

The economic crisis and the assault on unions and working people

by Duane Campbell

Duane Campbell

The nation and the states continue to suffer from the Great Recession and working people remain in crisis.  The crisis was caused by the greed and avarice of the financial class and aided by the politicians of both major political parties.   The  major banks and corporations looted the economy creating an international meltdown.  Now, they have been rewarded with bail out money and have returned to high profits.  The crisis was not caused by students, teachers, public employees  nor recipients of social security.     The  continuing economic decline has had a devastating impact on state budgets in  at least  42 states.   Revenues have continued to plunge and  legislatures  have been forced to make a series of deep cuts to virtually all of the state’s programs, health care, police protection, education and university systems.

The national unemployment rate edged down in February to 8.9 %, but remained high in many states and regions.  In California it is over 12.5%.  According to the Labor Center at U.C. Berkeley, the Black unemployment rate is 15.3 % and the Latino unemployment rate hovers around 11.6% in February.   These sustained high levels of unemployment and long term unemployment are devastating to families.

The corporate class is using the state budget crises to assault union workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, Colorado  among others.  They do not need this assault in Texas, Arizona, Utah,  Virginia, and much of the South where public workers are already restricted from bargaining.

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Wisconsin Shows Failure of Democrats to Back Pro-Labor Reforms

by Mark Engler

Mark Engler

We should all know by now that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on organized labor (and similar attacks by Republicans in Ohio, Michigan, and beyond) are not about balancing budgets. They are about undermining the single most important institutional force opposing exclusive big business control over U.S. politics. As Fox News anchor Shep Smith succinctly explained in a moment of refreshing candor for the network: “Bust the unions; it’s over.”

Now, it’s not at all surprising that, upon taking power, the Republicans would act quickly and forcefully to bolster their base (strengthening the power of corporate America) and disempower their political foes in the labor movement. Such is the essence of hard-nosed politics.

When Democrats take power, we would expect the converse: strong, swift, and sweeping actions to protect Americans’ right to join a union. Right?

Wrong. Instead of voicing a full-throated defense of workers’ rights, Democrats have consistently regarded protecting collective bargaining, updating ancient labor laws, and eliminating rampant corporate abuse of the system to be special interest concerns, of no real priority to the party as a whole.

Carter, Clinton, Obama. Again and again, labor has been told that its legislative priorities should take a back seat to more pressing matters, and again and again moments of political opportunity have passed with no action being taken to shore up labor rights.

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Steve Early on the poison pill in health care that helped kill labor law reform

Steve Early

Talking Union contributor Steve Early has written a lengthy, informative analysis of Obama, healthcare reform, and the Employee Free Choice Act for the September 2010 issue  of  Working USA. Here is the abstract.

Embedded in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 was a poison pill for labor. It took the form of an excise tax on higher-cost, job-based medical coverage—the so-called “Cadillac health plans” negotiated by unions themselves. This deadly political booby-trap became a major organizational distraction and resource drain during a key phase of labor’s health-care campaign. Instead of mounting a broad fight for expanded social insurance, unions were forced to wage a frantic defensive struggle against taxation of worker benefits. The “Cadillac tax” backed by Barack Obama was so redolent of John McCain’s own stance on health care during the 2008 presidential campaign that it produced a “working class revolt” in Massachusetts. There, a Republican opposed to the excise tax defeated the Democratic Senatorial candidate running for the late Ted Kennedy’s seat in January 2010. When the Democrats’ lost their filibuster-proof “super-majority” in the Senate, the already controversial Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) became the first political casualty of “ObamaCare.” In November 2010, there are likely to be many more.

The entire article (“The Poison Pill in ‘Obamacare That Helped Kill Labor Law Reform”) is available on Steve Early’s website.

Why is EFCA ‘dead’, but LGBT and immigrant issues on the table?

by Mike Elk

Mike Elk

In Jonathan Alter’s new book, “The Promise,” he explains why issues so essential to the Democratic base such as labor law reform, immigration reform and gay rights were sidetracked in favor of “top tier” issues: the stimulus, the budget and health care reform:

The “No Distractions” theme would be critical to shaping 2009. It meant that divisive issues requiring the approval of Congress, like comprehensive immigration reform, the Employee Free Choice Act (a priority of organized labor, better known as “card check” that would make it easier for unions to organize) and repealing the ban on gays in the military would all be set aside temporarily while Democrats focused on Obama’s first-tier agenda. Those priorities that made the cut for 2009 would be advanced relentlessly. Instead of hoarding their political capital, Rahm said, they would leverage the capital earned on early wins to build more for the tougher struggles down the road.

In the early stages, gay, immigrant and labor groups hoped that keeping mum on their issues and helping to pass the administration’s top-tier priorities would lead to victory on their issues. These groups followed that strategy despite the howls from their own members – many of whom insisted the administration was merely delaying bringing up their issues in hopes of killing the politically risky debates altogether.

After health care began to flounder, it became clear that none of these groups’ issues would be advanced by the president. The president remained mum on these topics and refused to say anything about them unless prodded by a town hall questioner. The deafening silence from the White House on issues essential to these three core Democratic constituencies made it clear that the White House was not investing political capital in passing those reforms.

In the summer of 2009, it looked as though immigration reform, gay rights and labor law reform were going nowhere. Each of the groups most closely concerned has chosen very different strategies in response to the administration’s evident reluctance to act on their essential concerns. Continue reading

New Outrage Exposes Obama’s Failure To Help Unions

by Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw

On June 11, St. Joseph’s Health Systems (SJHS) did something that employers have long done but which Barack Obama’s presidency was supposed to stop: it filed a frivolous NLRB appeal to delay unionization for workers who won an election. In this case, SJHS is denying unionization to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital workers who chose the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in the largest successful hospital election of 2009. SJHS’s appeals could keep over 600 workers non-union for another year, an action tantamount to John McCain appealing his defeat in November 2008 and allowing George W. Bush to stay as President through today. President Obama has done nothing to change these undemocratic union election laws, despite committing to do so. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka should visit workers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and tell Obama that, as the President often puts it, “Now is the time and this is the place” for the President to bring “change” for workers.

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Labor Unions May Have To Abandon Obama to Beat Corporate America

By Mike Elk

Mike Elk

As president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka is emerging as the voice of an increasingly irrelevant labor movement. As unionized work sinks to only 7 percent of the private sector, the labor movement is losing its influence within the Democratic Party. To revitalize labor, Trumka must not only challenge Democratic leaders, but wage political battles outside the bounds of party politics by bringing labor back to its working-class activist roots.

The failure of President Barack Obama to make a major push on the Employee Free Choice Act — let alone give even a single speech dedicated to the topic — is a telling sign of organized labor’s declining momentum inside the Beltway. As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson noted in February, “For American labor, year one of Barack Obama’s presidency has been close to an unmitigated disaster.” Labor ranks so low on the president’s list of priorities that a new generation of Obama activists is now planning for a political environment altogether devoid of the labor movement.

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With New President Will SEIU Change?

Mary Kay Henry

by Paul Garver

For once, there is agreement between the Andy Stern/Anna Burger leadership team and their harshest critics on the left of the labor movement. In an interview with Washington Post writer Alec MacGillis, Stern referred to both Mary Key Henry and Anna Burger as his “lifelong partners,” either of whom would make a good president for SEIU. Either will “build on what’s happened here, not tear it down and change it.”

Anna Burger agrees. In a gracious letter withdrawing her candidacy, she referred to Mary Key as her ‘union sister,” with whom she will remain a close working colleague for the benefit of SEIU members and all working people. She wrote that “The media is just wrong when they suggest that this contest represents a shift in SEIU’s priorities or a rejection of the Stern/Burger agenda.”

Labor Notes editorialized that the contest was merely about “which successor to Stern’s throne would best carry on its mission to quickly expand the union by offering value to corporations.” Steve Early, in a detailed and informative posting on the Working In these Times blog, outlined Mary Kay Henry’s history as a loyal staff officer with no rank-and-file experience in SEIU who played over the years such a prominent role in the conflicts within SEIU’s healthcare unions in California that would make it especially difficult for her to resolve SEIU’s disastrous civil war with the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

But other commentators find reasons to believe that SEIU might undertake a modest course correction in the near future. I recently outlined a minimal reform program for SEIU on this blog.
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