‘History taught us organizing does not follow the law,’ says incoming AFl-CIO organizing director Elizabeth Bunn. ‘The law follows organizing. We must be about organizing.’
Orlando, Fla. – As the executive Council of the AFL-CIO met here in early March, the fortunes of the labor movement – unlike the rollercoasters of nearby Disney World – seemed headed in only one direction: down.
“The political environment is very, very difficult,” political director Karen Ackerman said as she outlined plans for the mid-term elections. So is the environment for other union concerns: jobs, organizing, bargaining, legislation and public support.
And a little over a year after unions played a major role in electing a new Democratic president and strong congressional majority, they felt increasingly frustrated. They welcomed Labor Secretary Hilda Solis warmly, but they questioned Vice President Joe Biden sharply over issues like the need for a major new stimulus package. And they declared how “appalled” they were by Obama’s “unacceptable” support for mass firings of 93 Central Falls, R.I., high-school teachers and staff.
Organized labor isn’t just hunkering down and hoping for better days, as it often has in the past. It can’t afford that now. “You’ve got to talk about fighting on,” says AFSCME (public employees) organizing director Jim Schmitz. “It’s an existential issue for the labor movement.”
Ackerman predicts that the big issues dominating the year will include job creation, anger at bank bailouts and executive bonuses, and mixed feelings – even from union voters in the center and left – about healthcare reform. On all those issues, unions will find it difficult to convince some members that Democrats have brought the change they wanted. This raises the specter of 1994, when disillusioned working-class voters stayed home and Republicans took the House.
Unions will be taking their campaign into communities – as Trumka did in joining a rally in Evansville, Ind., against a Whirlpool plant closing just before the meeting, and as the AFL-CIO did with local Orlando allies in holding a community forum. The gathering of a couple hundred in the Painters union hall featured workers dealing with unemployment, a student deep in debt with few job prospects, overloaded social service providers, and an electrical contractor facing depressed consumer demand and a credit crunch for small businesses.
“The clear solution is to change the system,” Trumka told the rally. “We can do it, but only if we do it together as a community.” The AFL-CIO jobs program is itself less a plan to change the system than a plan to save the system – and workers with it. The proposed new stimulus includes:
extended aid to the unemployed (approved now through the end of the year)
renewed aid for state and local governments (there’s a $178 billion shortfall this year for states alone)
infrastructure projects (a start on roughly $2.3 trillion in deferred maintenance, as well as new investment in high-speed rail and other needs)
public-service jobs in high-unemployment areas, and
redirection of the TARP (Troubled Assets Relief Program, or bank bailout) balance to lending to small- and medium-sized businesses.
The package would cost $900 billion, but Trumka dismisses deficit hawks, who forget that most of the current deficit stems from Bush tax cuts, two wars and a deep recession resulting from policies of financial market deregulation. “The U.S. does not have a short-term deficit problem,” Trumka argues. “It has a short-term jobs problem. And the longer we wait [to create jobs], the greater the long-term debt and deficit problems become.”
New jobs – generating new income and taxes – will repay part of the stimulus cost. But Trumka told the rally, “It’s time for Wall Street to pay for the 11 million jobs we’re short since the awful financial crisis they gave us began.” Wall Street can pay for the crisis by reimbursing the government for all TARP costs, by paying higher taxes on bonuses and by requiring hedge fund operators to pay normal income-tax rates (not lower capital gains tax rates) on all their income.
Most important, says AFL-CIO policy director Damon Silvers, the government should impose a very small – three to five one-hundredths of a percent – tax on all financial transactions, which could generate $400 billion a year. But, he says, “most important from our point of view, it shifts financial markets from speculation to investment.”
The AFL-CIO and its allies are pushing for tough-minded re-regulation of the financial sector, including an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency. And it wants regulation of the “shadow capital markets” (like hedge funds), a strong regulator responsible for systemic risk with powers to take over failing banks, restoration of fairness in the housing market and prohibitions against banks operating their own proprietary trading (like having a hedge fund).
Gearing up for midterm elections
Work on all these issues will feed into labor’s electoral campaign, which “will be the largest ever in terms of politics, including the 2008 campaign, in both people power and money,” AFSCME President Gerald McEntee says. He says unions will take advantage of the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision on campaign finance to use union money to reach non-union workers. But the political program will focus as usual on repeated (preferably personal and workplace) contacts with union members, as well as mobilization of the 3 million members of Working America, working-class families who do not belong to unions.
But in what McEntee called a “new strategy,” labor is supporting moderately pro-labor Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a primary challenge to labor’s nemesis on many issues, including labor law reform, Sen. Blanche Lincoln. Unions also hope to “send a message” by endorsing fewer incumbent Democrats with bad records or offering endorsements without work or money.
Union leaders were disappointed that Obama postponed and did not directly engage in the fight for labor law reform, despite his pro-union comments. Trumka still says the proposal to strengthen workers’ right to organize will pass this year. But Communications Workers president Larry Cohen and others see “no path” to victory in this Congress.
Labor is also frustrated that Obama did not make recess appointments of new appointees to the long understaffed and barely functioning National Labor Relations Board after the Senate filibustered approval of the distinguished labor lawyer, Craig Becker. But both administration and union officials hinted that in the next recess Obama would appoint Becker.
Obama’s labor appointees could make a big difference through their regulatory power – as some already have. Solis has hired at least 750 new inspectors to enforce laws governing working conditions. She appointed strong directors of mine and occupational safety and health agencies, which are also moving forward with new rules.
The department is researching employer misclassification of workers as independent contractors, encouraging greater use of project labor agreements that provide stability and protection of labor standards on construction projects, and investigating how government can use its massive contracting of work to raise wages and work standards.
Another agency, the National Mediation Board, which oversees the Railway Labor Act governing much of the transportation industry, is on the verge of issuing new, more democratic union representation rules that will make airline organizing easier. Regulatory changes at the NLRB may also make organizing easier, by undoing restrictions imposed by the Bush board.
It’s all about organizing
Despite grim prospects for passing even a weakened Employee Free Choice Act, Cohen insists “there’s no difference about what we do.” And that’s continuing to organize, as a few unions in airlines, hotels and gaming, public sector work, and other areas are doing with some success now.
The AFL-CIO is also attempting to broaden the definition of the labor movement. It is seeking closer relationships with groups of workers who are organizing themselves – day laborers, independent contractors, domestic workers, cab drivers, farmworkers, freelance professionals, worker center organizers and many others – who may not be able or willing to form a union. And they are relying more on groups like Working America, Jobs with Justice, American Rights at Work and Interfaith Worker Justice to expand the fight for workers’ rights.
Ultimately, incoming AFL-CIO organizing director Elizabeth Bunn says, “History taught us organizing does not follow the law. The law follows organizing. We must be about organizing.” But until there is a change in the laws and regulations, as well as the intense anti-union ideology and behavior of American managers, every year will be a tough, existential year for organized labor.
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.