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Labor Law for the 0.01%

The US needs labor law reform, but not the “Employee Rights Act” for the 0.01 percent.

Newt Gingrich speaking at the Western Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

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In last Monday’s Washington Post, right-wing lobbyists Rick Berman and Newt Gingrich call for the new Republican Congress to pass without delay the ludicrously mistitled “Employee Rights Act” (ERA), a reactionary bill that would promote the interests of powerful corporations and billionaires at the expense of US workers.

Between them, Berman and Gingrich have decades of experience opposing workers’ collective rights. At a recent meeting of oil and gas executives, Berman – CEO of the virulently anti-labor Center for Union Facts – was recorded saying, “I get up every morning and . . . figure out how to screw with the labor unions.” Politics, Berman explained, is “an endless war” in which corporations must use “fear and anger” because they can “either win ugly or lose pretty.” Gingrich, too, has a long history of “screwing” with unions. In 1992, then GOP whip, Gingrich advised Labor Secretary Lynn Martin to overhaul union financial reporting rules to “weaken our opponents and encourage our allies.” (Under George W. Bush, the Department of Labor adopted his brazenly partisan advice.)

Given those credentials, it is unsurprising that the ERA would not “protect” workers from unions – the fallacy that workers need protection from unions is a standard right-wing talking point – but would “encourage” the billionaire allies of the GOP by “winning ugly.”

The ERA would mandate that any worker who wants a union must go through a lengthy management-dominated certification election. Berman and Gingrich compare union elections with political elections, but fail to say that during union elections, employers and “union avoidance” consultants enjoy exclusive access to the workplace, force workers to attend group and one-on-one anti-union speeches, and tell them that voting for the union may threaten their job security. Many workers face direct threats of retaliation and dismissal. They also fail to mention that, under the ERA, unions need to win not just a majority of votes cast, but a majority of eligible voters, and the bill requires that certification votes proceed even following allegations of serious unlawful management conduct. Thus, the ERA would mandate long election campaigns that enable unscrupulous employers and their highly paid consultants to intimidate and coerce their workers into voting against the union.

The ERA would strengthen the penalties against unions that allegedly use coercion to get workers to support them. This is a red herring intended to distract from the real problem – widespread intimidation by corporations. Every year the labor board finds merit in thousands of unfair labor practice complaints against companies – compared with a tiny number of complaints against unions – but the penalties for employers who intimidate, coerce or fire workers are pathetically weak. In other words, the ERA punishes unions that don’t coerce workers, gives a free pass to unscrupulous corporations that do, and makes it as difficult as possible for workers to choose a union – all in the name of “employee freedom.”

The ERA would also make it far more difficult for unions to spend money on politics by forcing them to get annual written permission from every single member. This idea, commonly known as “paycheck protection,” has been popular in right-wing circles since first promoted by the American Legislative Exchange Council in the early 1990s. California voters have rejected it three times over the past 16 years – most recently in November 2012 – because they recognized it for what it is: a cynical partisan effort to increase the stranglehold that corporations and billionaires hold over our political process. California’s dishonest 2012 paycheck proposition even originated with the Lincoln Club of Orange County – the folks who indirectly brought us the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Most union members understand that political action is essential to protect their economic benefits, but may not realize that through their pension investments, many union members subsidize corporate political speech. Moreover, union money doesn’t compare with the corporate cash that Berman believes should enjoy “total anonymity.” In 2012, the top 0.01 percent’s donations to Democrats were, according to Robert Reich, “more than four times larger than all union donations to Democrats put together.” The biggest spender of all in the 2012 election cycle was Gingrich ally Sheldon Adelson, who gave well over $100 million to conservative causes and candidates. Adelson told The Wall Street Journal he would spend double that figure next time, especially to support anti-union legislation like the ERA.

The country desperately needs labor law reform – but not the labor law for the 0.01% supported by Berman and Gingrich. Under the existing law, unscrupulous corporations and their “union avoidance consultants” are the ones that really choose whether a workplace gets a union. Every reputable survey shows that millions of non-union workers would like union representation but can’t get it under the current system because of weak legal protection and strong employer opposition. The real scandal is that millions of US workers lack protection from powerful corporations that offer poverty wages, precarious employment and poor working conditions. Strong unions would help workers at Walmart, McDonald’s and Amazon gain a living wage and win respect at work.

The ERA offers US workers nothing but greater economic inequality and even more misery. Given who supports it, this should surprise no one. When education expert Diane Ravitch challenged Rick Berman’s invented “facts” denouncing teachers’ unions, he replied: “I am a PR man, not an education researcher.” Don’t be fooled by their misleading “facts” and disingenuous “pro-employee” rhetoric. Berman and Gingrich are nothing but slick PR men peddling labor law reform for the 0.01%.

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