5 Key Tasks for the New Secretary of Labor

Roger Bybee

To strengthen unions, the next Labor Secretary will need more support from the movement than departing secretary Hilda Solis received.

With President Barack Obama set to appoint a new Labor Secretary soon to replace staunch union advocate Hilda Solis, a besieged labor movement needs to start thinking very seriously about what it needs from — and how it can concretely support — Solis’s successor. 

Union membership is at its lowest point in 76 years, representing just 11.3 percent of the U.S. workforce. These figures result from an ongoing war against union organizing, one made possible because, as Robert Bruno, director of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Labor Education Program, explains, We have the weakest labor law and enforcement of labor law in the entire Western industrialized world.”

The situation could become even worse: New right to work” laws in Indiana and Michigan—the latter the crucible of industrial unionism forged by path-breaking sit-down strikes by auto workers — prohibit unions from requiring workers to pay dues for the benefits and representation they receive. This immensely enlarges employers’ power to pressure individual workers and diminishing labor influence in raising standards for workers generally. And now, another right-to-work” effort is underway in Pennsylvania, which has also been a stronghold of unionism for decades. 

To head off more anti-worker measures and maximize what it can gain from working with Solis’ successor, labor must start strategizing about how it can offer more meaningful support to pro-worker initiatives launched by the new Labor Secretary, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and author of No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing.”

Solis, a former U.S. representative and daughter of union members, sometimes found herself isolated in the White House, as when she pressed ahead on enforcing child-labor laws for farm workers. This was a natural priority for a Latina familiar with the ruthless treatment of those toiling under the broiling California sun for big agribusiness firms. But once business raised a sufficient uproar, Solis’s long-planned initiatives were shelved in the hope of pacifying corporate leaders.

However, no comparable crusade by labor in support of Solis’s proposals was audible outside the White House. Labor failed to generate backing for Solis and its own policy aims.

Painfully relevant in this case — and in far too many others — is an astute observation made in 2007 by longtime labor writer Philip Dine, author of State of the Unions:

What’s puzzling about labor’s failure to deliver its message is that most people agree with almost all of its policy goals. It has created a vacuum in terms of public perception that allows labor’s adversaries to define it in negative ways; and, as a result, it has jeopardized labor’s survival.

While the AFL-CIO now has an extremely articulate, appealing, and alliance-oriented leader in Rich Trumka — especially compared with predecessors George Meany and Lane Kirkland — labor’s messages of broadly-shared prosperity” and social justice still rarely penetrate into the dominant political discourse. This problem is exacerbated when labor declines to establish an independent voice and to challenge Democratic leaders — as when it failed to push Solis’s efforts for farm workers.

Helping to fill that communications vacuum” left by the labor movement is one of the crucial tasks ahead for the new Secretary of Labor, according to Bronfenbrenner. Here are five such tasks she listed for me:

1. Using the bully pulpit to educate the public and shame bullies

Just as Hilda Solis used her position as a bully pulpit to target corporations exploiting workers, particularly immigrant workers on the margins, the new Labor Secretary needs to, within the constrains that exist, use the access to the media that he or she will have,” says Bronfenbrenner. There are great advantages to having the platform and media access. Choosing the right issues to bring forward and educate the public on — that is crucial. The labor Secretary has a chance to pull the curtain back and shame employers about extremely shameful conduct.”

Hilda Solis did that with issues like wage theft [as described by Kim Bobo in her recent book Wage Theft, low-wage workers are robbed by surprisingly widespread practices like forcing them to labor off the clock” or simply short-changing them on pay, along with a host of other systematic maneuvers by employers ranging from small operators to giants like Wal-Mart]. She really kept wage theft at the front and center,” she noted. In fact, as Dave Jamieson reported, Last year, the wage and hour division managed to return $280 million in wages owed to 300,000 workers, the most in a single year.”

2. Start at the top with major violators

Top corporate CEOs have often avoided accountability for misdeeds that they have approved by blaming subordinates for misconduct such as breaking union-organizing rules, violating wage-and-hour laws, permitting dangerous conditions to persist and violating environmental rules (a dodge used successfully in the past by Massey Energy). Often, top executives will deny any responsibility for the parent corporation, claiming that it is all the fault of a subsidiary firm, as Thom Hartmann points out in his excellent book, Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became People’and How You Can Fight Back.

The new Labor Secretary needs to sweep aside such evasions and go after those in control, says Bronfenbrenner. Claims should move to the corporate level right away — hold the CEOs of the parent companies publicly accountable and speed up the process,” she advocates. The more time that passes, the more it costs the individual worker and the union if there is a union involved.”

The Labor Secretary should also direct regulatory agencies toward corporations that have repeatedly committed serious violations of laws protecting worker rights and safety. It’s important to target the companies where repeated and egregious violations have occurred. Make sure that they get the most serious penalties possible when they are violators of multiple laws — wage-and-hour, pensions, OSHA, the entire range of labor laws. There should be criminal penalties for companies that engage in multiple violations,” Bronfenbrenner says.

Solis put this idea into practice after the Massey mine disaster, meeting with coal-mining executives to warn them of the intensified scrutiny and penalties they would face for serious safety violations.

3. Creative rule-making

With this Congress, there are limits to making legislative change,” Bronfenbrenner says. There’s a lot that can be done with rule-making, and a smart Labor Department can be very creative.” 

Indeed, the new Labor Secretary will be facing one of the most virulently anti-labor Congresses in generations, particularly in the House where Republicans hold a majority. The House Republicans showed their extraordinary disregard for worker health by actions like voting down a bill to improve mine safety just months after the April 2010 Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 miners and was caused by Massey Energy’s blatant violations of safety rules. 

Seeking compromise with these Republicans will clearly be fruitless, suggests Bronfenbrenner. But with the power to draft rules that establish how laws will be applied and enforced, the Labor Secretary has considerable influence.

While existing labor laws exempt some workers from protection, it is vital for the Secretary to follow a strategy that forces employers to put forth defenses of their treatment of workers.

I think that it is vital to act as if there is a presumption of employee status,” Bronfenbrenner says. Leave it to the employers to prove that workers are not full-time employees, or that they are somehow ineligible for protection. Make the employers challenge. The same is true on the issue of citizenship, or the distinction between full-time and part-time. Keep the burden on the employer.”

4. Be ready for retaliation

The corporate attacks against Solis were relatively mild compared to those launched against the National Labor Relations Board, especially after the NLRB issued charges against Boeing’s decision to relocate jobs from Everett, Washington to South Carolina. The entire corporate class and all of its organizations — from the Business Roundtable to the Chamber of Commerce to the National Association of Manufacturers — was infuriated by the NLRB questioning their right” to relocate jobs regardless of existing law and the human costs involved. As Bronfenbrenner wrote in the Washington Post, the NLRB’s action touched the third rail in labor law: management rights to open, close and move operations free from interference, even when the purpose of doing so is to avoid unionization.”

The harsh, Red Scare-style attacks persisted from Republican legislators and right-wing media outlets without provoking a corresponding response from labor and its own allies in Congress and the media. The NLRB staff and pro-worker members were left to absorb an unremitting barrage largely on their own, The current NLRB has made brave decisions and they have taken enormous heat,” Bronfenbrenner says. They’ve changed their careers forever.” 

If the next Labor Secretary similarly offends corporate sensibilities, he or she must anticipate this kind of relentless assault. But the Labor Secretary cannot be expected to fend this off this type of high-level, highly-coordinated attack alone. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions like SEIU and Teamsters will need to start promoting powerful pro-worker, anti-corporate messages like those that built the Occupy movement in 2011.

5. Fight for inclusion 

Given the huge challenges that working people and their unions face today, it is crucial that the Labor Secretary demand the involvement of working people in every area of decision-making, Bronfenbrenner stresses.

The Labor Secretary needs to be a voice lobbying for the Department of Labor to be representing the interests of working people, arguing for resources that are needed to protect workers, and to insist that workers’ voices need to heard in economic discussions, on economy, on trade, on taxes, the impact of economic strategies on unemployment, pensions, on wages, on families.

And the secretary must defend the right to organize. These are all rights and benefits that the Labor department has a duty to enforce,” she concludes.

While the next Labor Secretary will be required to confront massive problems of inequality and pervasive corporate lawbreaking that face working people, the labor movement must recognize that they, too, bear a heavy responsibility. The current situation requires the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions to step up their defenses of any pro-worker initiatives from the Labor Secretary and advance the beleaguered cause of working people. At this moment, labor must come to grips with the unremitting assault from individual employers and Corporate America collectively and — assuming the new secretary is from the same mold as Solis — protect the new Labor Secretary as a vital ally.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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