Renewing the Union Label

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After more than 25 years of siege, the union movement now strikes back. The recent release of tapes from the Labor Department demonstrating the complete lack of concern for American workers proves the point of labor: it is time for a major shift in emphasis in the American economy.

Since the day the Bush administration took control of the Labor Department, appointing Elaine Chao as Secretary, the Department of Labor has been on the offensive againstthe American worker. Chao, the daughter of a wealthy Chinese expatriate from Long Island’s exclusive North Shore was educated at Mount Holyoke College and Harvard Business School. After miscellaneous political appointive jobs she ended up at the Heritage Institute. Even though her husband is anti-worker, anti-union Republican Minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Bush apparently felt no shame or hesitation in adding her as the point person on what was to become the most anti-labor cabinet in history.

During the Bush-Chao years, she oversaw business-sponsored attacks on overtime for workers, making it more difficult for workers to earn overtime. During her tenure, the Deparment of Labor, we now know, cut career staff dramatically, while making Labor a dumping ground for Right Wing political appointees, who served an average of 5.3 years as compared to the normal 18 months for most political appointments.

Today the House will hear testimony from a selection of taped recordeings made in an investigation of the department by the House Labor Committee, headed by Rep. George Miller of California. It is clear from the tapes and from the cover comments of many in the department, that there will be much more to come on this scandal of enormous proportions. Rather than being offered help, workers were told simply to “get another job.”

So, after wages and earnings have remained flat for at least the entire period of the Bush Administration, while overtime restrictions have been cut, while the President cheers for people working three jobs, and while a Heritage Foundation lackey works for the corporations who are trying to send all American jobs overseas do we have any hope on the horizon? We do.

It is the Employee Free Choice Act now in Congress. It offers Labor new hope in resurrecting the incomes and the spirit of the average American worker. It says very simply that when a number of workers want to have a union, they simply have to assmble,  get the approporiate number of signatures and they can have a union. They can’t be fired and they can’t be harassed. Employees don’t have to belong to the union. In fact, even in the difficult days of the Bush-Chao era many unions that did the difficult and dangerous work of organizing, never did activate a union. But employers understood that better working conditions were important to these workers.

Even before the current economic crisis, some workers were beginning to understand that their best hope of keeping healthcare and keeping their jobs was through a union. Even with all the difficulties in organizing, unions added over 428,000 new members in 2008, a relatively small percentage increase but the second consecutive increase in two years. About 16.1 million individuals are members of the U.S. union workforce, or a total of approximately 12.3%.

The legislation faces heavy opposition from the Chamber of Commerce, heavy supporters of Right Wing Republican policies. They say that they will allocate $20 billion to fight this legislation. The key to passage in the Senate could be Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who says that he will vote against it. In Pennsylvania, should he do so, this will be the end of his political career.

Senator Specter is apparently determined on self-sacrifice in support of anti-labor forces who–we have no way of knowing–may have offered him a position after he is voted out of the Senate in 2010. After all, he would not be the first Republican who voted for something severely damaging the public–Rep. Billy Tauzin comes to mind on the $26 billion payoff to the pharmaceutical companies in the prescription drug bill he shepherded through congress. Tauzin was given a reputed $2 million-per-year job as the lobbyist for the pharmaceutical companies.

No one should count out the power of big corporations to block legislation that they do not like. They have over 32,000 lobbyists in Washington, and allies like the Governor of the least labor-supporting state in the country, Governor Terry Sanford of North Carolina, or its anti-labor House representatives, like Virginia Foxx or  its Senator,  Richard Burr.

It is time the People stood up for labor. Labor stood up for the people in the last election…beyond the call of duty. Unions walked precincts. Unions made mailings. They handed out leaflets, held meetings, paid for expensive television time. Unions had already fought through the Bush Administration and came out whole. Unions worked for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in order to bring about a better day for all Americans. And now it is time for all Americans to repay the debt by telling their representatives…vote for the Employee Free Choice Act.