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What Can Labor Win if It Backs Obama’s Re-Election?
(Photo: US Department of Labor / Flickr)

What Can Labor Win if It Backs Obama’s Re-Election?

(Photo: US Department of Labor / Flickr)

Amy Dean talks to Richard Kahlenberg and Richard Bensinger about reforms that could finally give battle-weary union members a reason to send Obama and other Democrats back to Washington.

As usual in an election year, the labor movement has a lot of fair-weather friends. Late last month, when hard up for cash for its national convention, the Democratic Party turned to unions for funds. Labor refused to bankroll the convention, in part because unions are upset that it will be taking place in North Carolina, a so-called “right to work” state.

But the party’s request was just one part of what will be an extended process of solicitation. As much as ever, Democratic politicians rely on labor’s financial contributions and, even more important, its person-to-person field operation to put them in office.

What labor gets in return for its support is often less clear. Unions’ central legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), died a quiet death during President Obama’s first term. Other labor law reforms that might restore the right to organize in America and modernize the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) have been nowhere on the agenda. Politicians eager to proclaim themselves friends of working people in the heat of the election cycle have not stepped up to change this situation once they head to Congress.

So, if unions are going to be involved in electoral politics this year, what can they expect to win? And is Washington even relevant to progressive organizing efforts?

To discuss these questions, I brought together two experienced strategists. Richard Bensinger, formerly the organizing director of the AFL-CIO and currently an organizing director at the United Auto Workers (UAW), brings decades of organizing experience to the table. Meanwhile, Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author, most recently, of “Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice” (with Moshe Marvit), has been proposing some new ideas for labor law reform.

An edited and condensed version of our discussion follows. (The Century Foundation is also hosting a fuller transcript.)

Amy Dean: Are there reforms that can rebuild labor’s role as a legitimate steward of the economy? Does Washington even really matter for our organizing?

Richard Kahlenberg: Labor has been backing the Employee Free Choice Act, which I also support, but it’s pretty much dead now. It seems to me that President Obama could really show his support for labor and energize labor if he were to get behind the notion of amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act now protects people from discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, and the like. We should add to that the idea that you shouldn’t be discriminated against for simply exercising your right to join a union and trying to become a member of the middle class.

This is a much simpler proposition than the Employee Free Choice Act, which dealt with a number of issues that were complex in nature. That allowed opponents of EFCA to exploit the misunderstandings about what the act was designed to do.

Getting across the basic idea that people have a civil right to organize, and that they shouldn’t be fired or otherwise disciplined for exercising that right, is something that Washington could play a big role in supporting.

Richard Bensinger: Everyone in the country – and really in the world – is talking about income inequality and the destruction of the middle class. But it’s impossible to fully address that issue without making the right to organize a union central to a debate. There’s not going to be income equality in this country unless there’s a vibrant labor movement. The threat of union used to make some employers honest. Now that unions are down to only six percent of the private sector, even the threat of unions has been diminished greatly. So I think that it should be a top priority of unions and any administration to try to reform the labor laws.

At the same time, a movement creates legislation, not the other way around. So we have to organize ourselves now in order to really ever achieve any legislation.

AD: What I find interesting is that, on the one hand, we have economic inequality front and center on the national agenda, which is pretty extraordinary. And yet, I don’t hear anything about the labor movement as a solution to this problem.

RK: It’s a huge omission. The Economic Policy Institute has a chart which shows the increases in productivity over time and the proportion of those gains that went to workers. When labor was strong, those two lines coincided. When labor became greatly weakened, they diverged so that the top one percent has been capturing all of the productivity gains in the last two decades. So I agree that there is no way to address our nation’s income inequality without talking about labor as a central part of the solution.

RB: When you pose the question to people in the economy today, I think workers have a very, very favorable view of having a union. So I think there’s an opportunity for unions to step in and organize now in both manufacturing and the service sector, which is mostly a de-unionized sector. The only reason the service sector pays less is because it’s never been historically unionized. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be, as it is in other countries. But it does come back to two things: a commitment of unions to organize, and fixing what’s wrong with federal labor laws.

AD: There’s always been tension among organizers in the labor movement about whether or not we should invest in an electoral strategy. But the fact is that the labor movement spends millions of dollars to elect candidates every year. Given that, what should labor be expecting from the candidates that it throws its weight behind?

RK: I think at a minimum, labor should be asking of those candidates who are seeking support if they will get behind legislation to ensure the survival of the labor movement in this country. I mean, we’ve gone from one third of the private sector being organized to 6.9 percent. If these trends continue, there won’t be a labor movement in this country. It’s a matter of survival.

AD: The labor movement would argue that it’s already doing that.

RK: I think the labor movement needs to start thinking about strategies of reform that people can understand. Young people are going to be vital in any effort to get legislative change. And young people understand the civil rights movement. They are excited by it. They’re taught about it in school. The Albert Shanker Institute released a report not long ago which found that labor history is not taught in the schools – and when it is taught, it’s not taught well. If labor wants to be relevant, I think it has to reframe the way we think about labor rights and connect it to the excitement of the civil rights movement. If labor can ask for that sort of reform, then maybe there’s a chance we’ll actually see action.

RB: We all get frustrated with the lack of political change. But I think it’s a false dichotomy, organizing versus electoral politics. You do need both. To take the auto industry, for example, Chrysler wouldn’t exist today if Mitt Romney had been president.

But my heart has always been in the organizing, not in the legislative, arena. Even if we got a labor reform bill, employers are always going to fight unions. It’s never going to be easy. But there should at least be a minimum legal standard. In Germany, if you want to organize a union, one person can sign a union card and the union is recognized. In this country, federal labor laws do not protect workers who organize. Period. There are no penalties when an employer fires or threatens or intimidates people who want a union. So, when it comes to NLRB [National Labor Relations Board], I think employers are not really that concerned about the court of law.

But the good news is that employers are very concerned about the court of public opinion, which is stronger. And that’s what the Occupy movement shows. We don’t have to wait to organize to get legislative change in the United States. I think corporate America has reason to be very worried about a growing movement around the world for fair and just economic policy.

AD: My bias is that I don’t think there’s the political space and will for anything innovative at the federal level. My life’s work has been at the level of regions – areas bigger than a city but smaller than a state. So I wonder: Is there a state or local-level agenda that would advance organizing? Given the success of a group like ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council]in pushing the right-wing agenda in the states, could labor envision something similar for its own agenda?

RK: There are lots of great local statutes protecting against discrimination. But, in terms of labor law, there is federal “preemption” that makes it unlikely to get reform at a local level, even using a civil rights angle.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that labor could have a huge role in promoting living wage initiatives, better health care, better housing. That would help build bridges with other progressive organizations. And it actually could be in the narrow self-interest of labor, in the sense that people would start to understand labor and get to know what it’s about through these coalitions. So I think we need major reform at the federal level, but we also need to fight another set of battles at the regional level.

RB: I do think that a lot of answers to this are in community-based organizing. Because although a member of Congress may not be able to get a piece of legislation passed, if that member of Congress will publicly stand up for the right to organize – will hold a company accountable for not threatening or firing people who want to organize a union – I think their moral authority can’t be overstated. And, again, the court of public opinion may be stronger than the court of law.

When I organized in the mid-1970s, I was fired and it took five-and-a-half years to win my job back. That’s an absurdity. It’s no better today. It may be even worse.

If I was a worker today looking at a unionization campaign, I would say, “I’m down for this. I’m willing to do this. But is the community going to back me? Is the Congressperson, the mayor, the city council, or the community leaders, the activists in town, the 99 percent – are they going to back me?”

I think that’s a critical question. The union almost has to do both: It has to mobilize the workplace and the local community. Even though it may not be easy to figure out a legislative solution, I think that we have to really hold politicians accountable on this issue. It should be the litmus test for political support.

AD: How does making the civil rights demand help us? Why not just fight for stronger penalties within the NLRA?

RK: EFCA was framed as being about free choice. And obviously, it didn’t prevail. Part of the reason was that it could be described as a fight between two special interests. You had labor on the one side and business on the other, and they were fighting over who would have the edge. It was complicated, and people didn’t get passionate about it.

In contrast, the Civil Rights Movement is an iconic movement in this country. Obama talks about it all the time. Students understand it. And it was connected to stopping abuses by employers. So, to my mind, that’s why the civil rights framework works best.

During all the Republican presidential debates, I heard Newt Gingrich say, “We should abolish the NLRA.” I don’t even think Newt Gingrich really understands how pro-employer the NLRA is today. Managers I’ve talked with off the record admit this to me. When Gingrich said abolish it, I think there were people in the corporate boardroom saying, “Newt, you’re going too far. It’s our law. We should keep it.” I was tempted to call a press conference and say, “I call on you that one, Newt. I’ll join you. Let’s do away with it.”

The pushback that we’ve gotten from some elements of the labor movement is that we’re emphasizing individual rights, whereas, the labor movement, historically, is about solidarity and collective rights. And believe me, I’m a big advocate of collective rights. But in this country, that is not what appeals to people. We’re highly individualistic and people believe in rights. That’s why we think it makes sense to amend the Civil Rights Act, which has very tough penalties for those who break the law.

I think that the labor movement will be in a much better shape if it realizes that it can advance the collective by appealing to individual rights.

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