Organized labor is rightly claiming a major role in the
Nov. 4 victories of President-elect Barack Obama and congressional Democrats -
and is rightly expecting much in return.
The figures are impressive. One-fifth of all voters were union members or in union
households, and fully two-thirds of them supported Obama, by an even higher
ratio in battleground states.
The AFL-CIO calculates that more than a quarter-million
volunteers campaigned among their fellow union members and others, discussing
the issues that were of particular importance to working people, drumming up
support for Obama and other labor-friendly Democrats and, finally, getting
labor voters to the polls on election day.
The AFL-CIO's figures show that the volunteers knocked on
some 10 million doors, made 70 million telephone calls, handed out 27 million
leaflets and mailed out 57 million more. There was scarcely a union member or
union household anywhere that was not reached.
The number of union voters reached a record high of more
than 3 million. The labor federation claims they "made the difference in critical states like
Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and so many others." Maybe they did, maybe
not - but it is clear that organized labor significantly influenced the vote.
Not all of labor's favored candidates won, but enough of
them did to assure unions of labor-friendly majorities in the House and Senate.
You can be sure unions will be asking a lot of their
congressional friends, as well as of their friend in the White House. They want
"a new economic agenda," says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. He says,
"We need to rethink the rules and strategies of our economy. We need
changes attuned to today's world that are as bold and as visionary as the
economic changes FDR made so many decades ago."
Sweeney anticipates that the AFL-CIO will work closely
with the Obama administration and Congress to shape the agenda and meanwhile
will keep in place its mobilization structure to help press labor's case.
"Working men and women are poised to keep the energy
pumping to help the Obama administration lead the change we need," Sweeney
promised. " There will be no gap or letdown."
Labor's specific wishes are many, including steps to
stimulate the faltering economy,
such as extending the unemployment benefits of workers who have used up
their eligibility, broadening the food stamp program, rebuilding and repairing
the crumbling infrastructure, and making grants to state and local governments
that have been hit by heavy revenue losses. Unions also want to extend health
care coverage to many more Americans, and raise the taxes of high-income
earners to narrow the income gap between the wealthy and others that has
expanded greatly during the Bush presidency.
Above all, labor is demanding passage of the pending
Employee Free Choice Act that could guarantee millions of Americans the right
to unionize that has long been denied them -- the main reason only about 12
percent of American workers are in unions, despite the much higher pay,
benefits and other advantages of membership.
Employers routinely violate the current labor laws by
firing or otherwise disciplining those who support or attempt to organize
unions. Penalties, if any, are slight. Workers, in any case, fear complaining
about violations because to do so is to risk employer retaliation.
The Free Choice Act calls for much stiffer fines, swiftly
imposed, new penalties on employers who violate workers' rights and requires
that employers who stall in bargaining for union contracts will have the terms
dictated by an arbitrator. The key provision would automatically grant union
recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an
employer's workers, rather than holding an election, as is now usually done.
The law was like that originally, with no lengthy election campaigns and thus
much less opportunity for employers to intimidate workers.
The Free Choice Act cleared the House easily last year,
but could not get the 60-vote majority needed to overcome a filibuster by
Senate Republicans. The prospects are much better now, with strong support
promised by a majority of congressional Democrats, as well as Obama and Vice
President-elect Joe Biden, who were among the measure's co-sponsors when they
were in the Senate.
Obama's support is consistent with his pro-labor
approach. He also supports virtually all of labor's other specific wishes,
among them prohibiting employers from permanently replacing strikers and
raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, so it would rise as the
cost-of-living rises. He promises, as well, to reverse decisions by the Bush-appointed
majority on the National Labor Relations Board that have taken union rights
from thousands of workers and says that, unlike Bush appointees, his appointees
to positions dealing with unions will support workers' rights.
Rarely has labor had higher or more realistic
Copyright (c) 2008 Dick Meister