Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Labor's Happy Day
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Unions are marking Labor Day this year with greater expectations than they've had in several years for broadly expanding union ranks and the rights and rewards of all American workers through political action.

Chalk it up to the extraordinary union efforts that were highly instrumental in Democrats winning control of Congress in last year's midterm elections. That and the certainty that labor is eager, willing and able to campaign as hard for the Democratic candidate in next year's presidential election - whoever he or she may be -- and for other Democratic candidates at the national, state and local levels.

Among the most important of the candidates are Democrats who'll be attempting to win control of state legislatures in anticipation of redistricting after 2010, when they could redraw state and congressional district lines to favor election of more pro-labor candidates.

The unions' midterm campaign was by far the most extensive, most expensive and most successful political campaign in labor history. Unions spent more than $66 million, and put more than 100,000 members to work registering and turning out voters, distributing leaflets, staging rallies and contacting some 13 million voters directly.

One-fourth of all voters were union members, and they favored Democratic candidates over their Republican opponents by a margin of three- to- one. The Democratic majority in congressional races was 6.8 million votes, and union households provided 5.6 million or 80 percent of that margin.

But though winning a congressional majority, Democrats fell short of the numbers needed to overcome presidential vetoes and Republican filibusters threatened against major pro-labor measures. Labor and the Democrats are determined to remedy that next year with what promises to be another exceptional election campaign.

Labor did win some important victories this year, notably the first minimum wage increase in a decade. But union and Democratic leaders already are laying the groundwork for a drive to have it increased again, to $9.50 an hour in 2009, when the newly-approved minimum will reach $7.25.

Above all, labor will be seeking enactment of the long-pending Employee Free Choice Act that was passed by the House this year, but kept from Senate approval by a GOP filibuster. The act would greatly increase penalties on the many employers who illegally discipline workers who seek union rights and would otherwise make it easier for workers to unionize and thus bargain for higher pay, better health care, pensions and other benefits.

Not incidentally, it also would lead to a substantial increase in union membership and in labor's already considerable political clout.

The rest of labor's long and ambitious wish list deals with a wide variety of issues that are of great importance to most people, whether they be union members or not. The AFL-CIO, for instance, is demanding that Congress:

• Provide everyone affordable health care, in part by allowing Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for cheaper prescription drugs.

• Guarantee decent retirement benefits to all workers and truly equal pay to women workers.

• Repeal a federal regulation that allows employers to deny union rights to workers by classifying them as supervisors and extend union rights to all federal employees and to all firefighters and police.

• Tighten and intensify enforcement of job safety regulations in mines and other workplaces, revitalize manufacturing and require greater corporate accountability while limiting the lavish pay and pensions of CEOs.

• Ban the awarding of federal contracts to companies that outsource jobs and instead reward companies that provide jobs in this country, create an immigration system that fully protects the rights of foreign and domestic workers alike, and approve fair trade laws that penalize countries that violate workers' rights and other human rights and endanger the environment.

• Withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq quickly and develop an effective plan to fight the war on terror.

• Increase college student loans, revise President Bush's No Child Left Behind law and otherwise strive to give "a world-class education" to every child.

Many, if not most, of labor's wishes have at least the promise of support from many, if not most, congressional Democrats and Democratic presidential candidates. That alone, no matter how many of their wishes will or will not come true, is enough to make this the happiest Labor Day in many years for American unions.

Copyright 2007 Dick Meister