Forge a Coalition with Labor

Despite some progressives’ reservations about Kerry, he has committed himself to a wide swath of labor’s agenda

David Moberg

George Bush has been no friend of workers. He has mis-managed the economy, attacked workers’ rights on the job, redistributed income to the wealthy, engaged in an illegitimate war in Iraq, and offered deeply flawed plans for health care, education, Social Security and other major government programs. In short, Bush is waging a war at home on American workers. Bad as his policies have been, however, they are but a foretaste of what will come if Bush is re-elected.

Bush will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to end his term with fewer jobs than when he started. A recession after the late 90s bubble was inevitable, but Bush policies — fixated on long-term tax cuts for the rich rather than public spending or temporary tax relief for the middle and working class — were a poor stimulus to the economy.

The tax cuts also leave a legacy of record budget deficits — deficits that will be used by Republicans to justify cutbacks in social spending. If re-elected, Bush likely will propose privatizing Social Security, education and Medicare (as the pro-corporate prescription benefits plan begins to do). While increased military spending provides some stimulus, it takes money away from investment in infrastructure, education and research that could create jobs now and in the future.

Driven by a loss of roughly 3 million manufacturing jobs since August 2000, the United States has experienced a net loss of 1.3 million jobs since March 2001. But the problem is not just job loss. Despite some encouraging gains earlier this year — tempered by surprisingly weak job creation in June — Bush’s policies, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), have produced 2 million fewer jobs than he predicted during last year’s round of tax cuts. And according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, since the beginning of the year, 2 million unemployed workers have lost unemployment benefits because Bush refused to extend federal payments.

Even those who are working have lost ground. The economy has picked up, productivity continues to grow faster than wages, and newly created jobs pay, on average, 13 percent less than those that were lost. According to the EPI, real hourly wages, which had grown very slightly during Bush’s tenure, have declined since November 2003, returning to where they were in late 2001

The rapid increase in offshoring skilled service jobs, which compounded the problems created by the continued shift of manufacturing overseas, is a small but important part of the total loss. Yet the Bush administration hailed this development as a boon to business at the same time it fought against providing trade adjustment assistance to displaced service workers.

Globalization intensifies the downward pressure on wages created by a weak labor market. Bush’s refusal to raise the minimum wage — now, in real terms, 30 percent below its peak in 1968 — adds to the problem. With consumer debt at record highs and interest rates heading upwards, workers will be even more squeezed, consequently slowing any economic recovery.

Bush’s overall economic policies affect all working people — those currently employed and those hoping to enter or retire from the labor market. The labor movement is the key force resisting these trends; its work benefits members most but also boosts the fortunes of the unorganized. 

Labor, however, has been under assault. On matters big and small, Bush and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao have time and again shown their hostility to organized labor. For example, when Bush hosted the G-8 Summit, he refused to meet with international labor leaders — the first such snub in 27 years by a summit host. (Even Reagan, Bush I and Margaret Thatcher met with labor when they hosted summits.)

The substance of Bush’s policies hurts even more. For instance, the administration changed the laws on overtime pay thereby denying millions of workers overtime protection. Even though the Republican-controlled Senate voted in May to prohibit implementation of rules that would deprive those currently eligible, the House Republican leadership, ignoring the pleas of some Republicans, has refused to bring similar legislation to the floor.

Bush and Chao eliminated many of Clinton’s pro-labor initiatives, including long-delayed rules to prevent cumulative trauma disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, and the federal government’s labor-management cooperation programs. The administration slashed enforcement of workplace safety and work standards and withdrew two-dozen planned safety regulations. Toward the end of his term, Clinton trade negotiators took modest steps in agreements with Jordan and Cambodia that linked U.S. market access to improved labor protection, but Bush has refused to include labor or environmental protections in fast-track trade negotiation legislation, the proposed hemispheric expansion of NAFTA or any of his administration’s trade agreements. He even refused to investigate a well-researched petition about China’s violation of labor rights.

Unions themselves have been targeted. In 2002, the administration threatened to get an injunction against a strike by West Coast longshoremen when employers had already locked out workers. And, earlier this year, Chao tried imposing massive new reporting requirements for unions, but a federal judge temporarily delayed this costly harassment.

Most significantly, the Bush administration is threatening workers’ fundamental right to organize. Following 9/11, the administration used national security as an excuse to take away collective bargaining rights for roughly 200,000 federal workers, already having begun a plan to privatize 850,000 federal jobs. Using the tragedy of 9/11 to do that is evil,” says AFL-CIO organizing director Stewart Acuff. More than our share of union members have gone to Afghanistan and Iraq, and union members were the ones who responded on 9/11.”

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), dominated by Republicans with anti-labor track records, recently agreed to rule on the legitimacy of card checks” — the practice of organizing workers by getting employers to recognize the union after a majority sign union cards. With employers effectively using NLRB election procedures as a tool against organizing, more unions are turning to such card checks as a mechanism for union recognition. With this case, the board could undermine- the legitimacy of card checks, which Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.) has proposed prohibiting altogether, however the decision won’t come until after the election.

In contrast, Sen. John Kerry has promised to support and sign the Employee Free Choice Act. The act would require the NLRB to certify a union as bargaining agent if a majority of workers sign authorization cards, as well as to impose injunctions and fines if management attempts to prevent workers from joining a union, and to provide mediation and arbitration if bargaining does not promptly produce a first contract. Currently, 31 senators and 205 representatives are co-sponsors of the legislation, which is a top legislative priority for organized labor. In June unions collected and sent more than a million postcards supporting the legislation to Kerry and Bush.

The act could provide an enormous boost to labor, especially since a growing number of unions are primed to expand their organizing efforts, and their success is crucial not just for the labor movement but progressive politics as a whole. Giving workers the real, unfettered right to form their own unions will do more for rebuilding the labor movement and fueling progressive movements and legislation than almost any single other legislative act you could imagine,” Acuff says.

Despite some progressives’ reservations about Kerry, he has committed himself to a wide swath of labor’s agenda, such as reversing Bush’s tax cuts for those with incomes greater than $200,000, protecting Social Security and Medicare while expanding access to health insurance, raising the minimum wage, eliminating tax incentives to move jobs overseas, reviewing existing trade agreements, and incorporating labor and environmental protections in future agreements.

But from organized labor’s perspective, the key contrast in the presidential race is that a second Bush administration is likely to further reduce workers’ right to organize, and Kerry has pledged to expand that right. And it’s a key contrast not only for unions, but for the future of any progressive politics.

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

Brandon Johnson
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Get the whole story: Subscribe to In These Times magazine.