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Politics: Labor of love

Labor and the New Congress: A Strategy for Winning
By Nelson Lichtenstein
Spring 2007

A labor victory in the new Congress depends on the definition of what it means to win. Labor’s broad agenda is passable in almost inverse relationship to that agenda’s capacity to strengthen the institutional and political power of trade unionism itself. This has been true for more than forty years, ever since the mid-1960s, when, during the second of the two great surges of liberal legislation in the last century (the mid-1930s is the other one) civil rights, Medicare, immigration reform, and aid to education passed with relative ease, while the repeal of 14b, which allowed Southern and Western states to pass and maintain right-to-work laws had no chance in a Congress dominated by ostensible liberals.

Today’s Congress is far less liberal than that of forty-two years ago, and of course there is a right-wing Republican in the White House, but the dynamic is much the same. Those elements of labor’s agenda that are the least attached to the institutional needs of trade unionism per se have the best chance of passage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and it provides some guidance for labor strategists. A minimum-wage law may well pass, as might some kind of immigration reform, and there will be no further tax cuts for the wealthy. The privatization of Social Security remains off the table, except at the right-wing think tanks.

But even Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative George Miller (D-CA), among the most liberal and pro-labor legislators, did not put the Employee Free Choice Act, labor’s number-one institutional priority, on their hundred-hour checklist of top legislative priorities. So the problems facing the trade union movement are enormous, especially as it seeks to advance a key piece of legislation like EFCA, which would greatly reduce employer interference during organizing campaigns by making card checks as legally and administratively legitimate as a National Labor Relations Board election in the certification of a trade union. EFCA also provides for first contract mediation and arbitration and mandates stiffer penalties for the unfair labor practices that have become routine for so many managers determined to maintain or return to a “union-free” workplace.

No “Need” for an Election?
To see what labor is up against one merely has to open the newspaper—the Washington Post or Los Angeles Times will do—and read one of the advertisements put together by the shady lobbyist Rick Berman, now executive director of the mysteriously funded Center for Union Facts.

The ad has three pictures: of Kim Jong-il, identified as the North Korean “leader”; of Fidel Castro, also identified as a “leader”; and of Bruce Raynor of UNITE-HERE, identified as an “American Union Leader.” Above their pictures is the quote “There’s no reason to subject the workers to an election” and below the pictures of these three men, the query, “Who said it?” It was Raynor, of course, now made to seem clearly in league with the communist dictators. Says Union Facts: “American workers reject unions in almost half of all secret ballot elections. Find out how union leaders are forcing people to pay dues by trashing democracy.”[1]

Likewise the Human Resource Policy Association sums up employer opposition to the labor-liberal push for card checks and employer neutrality: “The secret ballot election process . . . guarantees confidentiality and protection against coercion, threats, peer pressure, and improper solicitations and inducements by either the employer or the union.”[2]

Raynor tells his side of the story in a December 21, 2006, online article in American Prospect, where he offers readers a tragic tale of thwarted hopes and smashed solidarity at Goya Foods in Miami, one of the largest Hispanic-owned companies in the United States. In 1998, workers at Goya voted by overwhelming margins for representation by UNITE, not once but in two separate NLRB election contests. The board certified the union, but company management stalled negotiations, fired key worker activists, and bribed others. UNITE filed scores of complaints with NLRB after which the general counsel charged Goya with twenty-three separate textbook violations of U.S. labor laws, including the usual threats of job loss and plant closings, interrogation, discrimination in work assignments, and the firing of at least four union supporters.

As is routine, the union and the company appealed to the federal courts, which after a frustrating, five-year delay, ruled decisively for UNITE in August 2006. Goya was found to have engaged in unlawful threats and interrogations, but the court leveled no monetary fine and imposed no real penalty against the company or its managers, so Goya continues to flaunt NLRB and courts, not to mention the will of its several hundred employees.

Raynor concludes that “after seven years, winning does not look all that different from losing” for these Goya workers. And, the UNITE-HERE president continues, “on election day in 1998 Goya workers celebrated their win only to suffer years of frustration and denial of their legal rights.” That is why, indeed, “there’s no reason to subject workers to NLRB elections.”

More at: http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=780
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