Just a few hours before President Obama was set to give his talk to Congress on the economy, former Rep. Hilda Solis was confirmed by a lopsided 80-17 vote as Labor Secretary following weeks of GOP delays. She was targeted, essentially, for being too pro-labor, although her Republican critics used other spurious objections to try to delay her choice, including some minor tax liens her husband already paid for his car repair business. The delaying tactics were also a forerunner to the upcoming political battle over the Employee Free Choice Act designed to help workers overcome harassment and intimidation. Now, aided by conservative mastermind Newt Gingrich, the right-wing has adopted a new Orwellian theme to go after workers' rights as part of their bogus economic stimulus plan (i.e., tax cuts for the wealthy): "Protect the Rights of American Workers. We must protect a worker's right to decide by secret ballot whether to join a union, and the worker's right to freely negotiate. Forced unionism will kill jobs in America at a time when we can't afford to lose them." In truth, unions are needed more than ever now because they boost wages, living standards and consumer demand. That's shown by a major report by the Center for American Progress and a statement from three dozen of the nation's leading centrist and progressive economists organized by the Economic Policy Institute, including Harvard's Richard B. Freeman, scheduled for release on Wednesday. That message was reinforced by the pro-working families themes struck by the President during his economic recovery speech: "That's what this is about. It's not about helping banks - it's about helping people…" The Solis confirmation is not just a victory for Solis and the Obama administration, but for working families everywhere after eight years of Republicans undermining the Labor Department during the Bush Administration. As Stewart Acuff, the special assistant to the AFL-CIO president, remarks, " She'll be a Labor Secretary for workers, unlike Elaine Chao, who was a Labor Secretary for CEOs and corporations. She'll look for ways to make working life more fair for American workers." The AFL-CIO President John Sweeney also observed: "The delay of Rep. Solis's nomination for partisan and ideological reasons was overcome by the grassroots support of millions of Americans who are struggling and desperately need a secretary of labor who will be their voice." Part of her response to workers' needs for fairness in a troubled economy will be supporting the Employee Free Choice Act she co-sponsored when in Congress. But conservatives aren't letting go of their hostility to workers' rights and the Employee Free Choice Act. They're primarily using the lie that it takes away the secret ballot from workers -- when it just gives them the added option of using majority sign-up when they, not the bosses, decide to use it. As Beth Shulman, the author of Betrayal of Work, said last week when discussing the new Center for American Progress report: "The business community knows the basic facts that are in this report: when workers have unions, they have better wages, they have better benefits, they have a voice in the workplace, so it's not surprising they would take a hard line with this. This [bill] is important to ensure a road to the middle class and a right to organize." But now the right-wing and corporate interests have adopted a new anti-union talking point that is literally as absurd as those used by the fictional dictatorship in George Orwell's 1984, which proclaimed such slogans as "War Is Peace" and "Freedom Is Slavery." Gingrich's update is "Protect the Rights of American Workers." That's like saying, Orwell-style: "No Unions = More Rights for Workers." Does enhancing the right to form unions, punishing corporations that intimidate workers and allowing workers to choose the majority sign-up option -- a choice now held by employers -- actually threaten workers' rights? Of course not. As American Rights at Work advocacy group points out: The Problem: Employers Silence Workers Who Attempt to Form Unions Under the current labor law system, employers often use a combination of legal and illegal methods to silence employees who attempt to form unions and bargain for better wages and working conditions. When faced with organizing drives, 25 percent of employers fire at least one pro-union worker; 51 percent threaten to close a worksite if the union prevails; and, 91 percent force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with their supervisors. In addition, the system designed to protect workers is severely broken. Laws and enforcement fail to sufficiently protect workers, offering penalties that are too weak to deter violations… So, in light of Obama's speech on the economy and our nation's future, it's worth noting how important unions will be to any recovery. With the pro-worker Hilda Solis now at the helm of the Labor Department, our country will have a better chance to fulfill the vision President Obama highlighted Tuesday night: Now is the time to act boldly and wisely - to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity. Now is the time to jumpstart job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down. That is what my economic agenda is designed to do, and that's what I'd like to talk to you about tonight. It's an agenda that begins with jobs. You can read more about the importance of unions to Obama's economic recovery plan in my column here.
Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.