In California and New Jersey, EFCA Déjà Vu

Mike Elk

In both states, Democrats seem to view workers’ rights as bargaining chips

This year in Madison, Wis., Democrats stood up for the right to collectively bargain. In fact, they actually fled the state in order to prevent Republicans from passing a bill virtually stripping the right from public-sector workers. As we saw throughout the historic occuptation of the Wisconsin capitol, when it comes to workers’ rights, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and organized labor were not divided. Workers’ rights were not a bargaining chip that Democrats trade for leverage on another issue. 

But in other states, some Democrats have played an indifferent role in the fight to defend workers’ rights. As R.M. Arrieta has noted on this website, right now in California, there is a bill before the governor that would give farm workers the right to majority recognition — also known as a card check.” (Under this system, workers do not have to hold a workplace election; if a majority of workers in a workplace signs cards in support of unionizing, they are unionized.) The bill would greatly help farm workers to organize since the seasonal nature of farm work can make slower NLRB-sponsored elections impractical for organizing.

Farmworkers are excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and do not have the right to join a union. In his first term as California governor in the 1970s, Jerry Brown signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which gave farm workers in California the right to collectively bargain. Now, Brown won’t state publicity whether or not he will sign the new farmworkers’ card check bill.

I find it strikingly unusual that Brown, who championed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act when he was first governor, is all of a sudden stonewalling the farm workers. Year after year, time after time, farm workers are still one of the most exploited workforces in the workforces in America,” says Baldemar Velásquez, president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO that organizes migrant workers. California has always been on the front lines of progressive changes. I suspect he is doing it for political leverage. Democrats have lost their fervor for a fight.”

Velásquez suspects that Brown is not standing up boldly for workers’ rights in order to curry favor with big agricultural interests needed to win GOP votes to pass a state budget to his liking. It sounds like he might be willing to appeal to the growers… What is clear is that he absolutely needs to be on the side of farm workers,” Velásquez says.

It’s a common story: While Democratic politicians might not necessarily be anti-worker, they are always cautious about being too strongly pro-worker. As we saw in the debate over the now-moribund Employee Free Choice Act, which Barack Obama did not give a single major speech in favor of after taking office, Democratic politicians are willing to be mute on issues of workers’ rights to win support for other areas of their political agenda.

So what is the labor movement to do when labor is not the top priority of Democrats? Velásquez has an answer.

We should have ended a long time ago relationships between the Democratic Party and labor,” says Baldemar Velásquez. I have always thought workers should have their own labor party.”

For some time, many in the U.S. labor movement have felt that if they had ownership over a political party, they would be able to defend and advance workers’ rights better. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka often points to New Jersey as an example of what labor needs to do. In New Jersey, the AFL-CIO ran a successful labor candidate program to elect hundreds of union members to public office. Even the president of the State Senate, Stephen Sweeney, is an Ironworkers local union organizer.

However, as the head of the New Jersey State Senate, Sweeney has worked with GOP Governor Chris Christie to pass a budget that would strip public employees of the right to collectively bargain over healthcare in New Jersey. Unlike Democrats in Wisconsin, who fled the state when GOP Governor Scott Walker tried to take away collective bargaining rights, Sweeney is trying to secure a third of Senate Democrats to vote with the Republican minority so a bill stripping public employees of their right to organize over healthcare can pass.

Sweeney, who is rumored to be interested in running for a statewide office, is believed to be attacking public employees and members of his own party in order to score points with New Jersey voters wary of public employee unions.

He could have made a deal with us to save hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Communications Workers of America Northeast Political Director Robert Master, whose unions represent tens of thousands of public employees in New Jersey. But instead he wanted to make a deal with Christie to score political points at the expense of public workers.”

So how does the labor movement move forward when some elected union members actually betray organized labor? How does the labor movement create conditions where politicians, even their own union members, see labor as the main cause, and not some political bargaining chip then can be traded away whenever the political winds shift?

One answer might be broadening the labor movement so that it is not so easy to pit nonunion and union workers against each other.

We in the labor movement have to understand that we need a better way to speak to the broader public. We have to recognize that the rest of working class is really struggling, that they have no pensions and they are paying a fortune for their healthcare,” says Master. To just say we are not the problem and leave our pension and contracts alone’ is not good enough. We have to understand what is happening to private sector healthcare and retirement security and figure out a way to fix it. Otherwise, unions will be on an island and we will not survive. “

But how does the labor movement create the energy where it can speak to many people about what they stand for, as opposed to speaking at small rallies composed mainly of their own members?

Some claim it means rebranding the labor movement through slick PR efforts, or recruiting youth to the labor movement. Some claim it means creating new types of unions such as OUR Wal-Mart that are more like employee associations with no collective bargaining power, rather than traditional unions. Or, as Joe Burns argues in his new book Reviving the Strike, it might take massive waves of strikes that shut down businesses and government and inspire workers to follow.

Whatever the answers, it seems obvious that many, if not most, Democrats will continue to view labor issues as a political bargaining chip unless bargaining workers’ rights away means the end of their careers.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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