Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Labor to Friends: "Hold Fast!"
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Rarely have American unions faced greater challenges than those that now confront them. Yet rarely have they had higher expectations of success.

Looming above all is the Employee Free Choice Act - the long-pending legislation that would open the way to significant expansion of the labor movement by denying employers the underhanded tactics they've used to block workers from unionizing.

The growth of unions, which now represent little more than 10 percent of U.S. workers, would benefit all Americans, union and non-union alike. As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich notes, "The way to get the economy back on track is to boost the purchasing power of the middle class, and one major way to do this is to expand the percentage of working Americans in unions."

What's more, expanding union membership would strengthen one of the most important players in the drive for revamping the health care system and carrying out other badly needed reforms.

The AFL-CIO already has begun mobilizing union members nationwide to work with an alliance of grassroots organizations to form "health care mobilization teams." They 're working to energize supporters and give strong backing to politicians and others who back a public option that would compete with the private, for-profit health insurance industry and provide better and cheaper care.

Opponents of reform are certain to run into heated opposition. Republican lawmakers will be especially targeted, as will conservative media commentators. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka noted that will definitely include "the entire cast at Fox News for perpetuating fear and mistruths about Obama's health care agenda." Rush Limbaugh also will get lots of serious attention.

Congressional Democrats who fail to support a public option run the serious risk of losing labor's backing in their next election campaigns. Anyone doubting the importance of labor backing need only recall last fall's elections. More than a quarter-million union members campaigned for Democratic candidates, spent more than $450 million on the campaigns and made up more than one-fifth of all voters.

And anyone doubting labor's chances of success in the drive for health care reform need only recall the crucial role played by unions in the enactment of Medicare, and their role before that in creating the employer-based health care system that provides important benefits for working people.

Of the other challenges facing labor, none are more important than the great need to lessen the severe on-the-job hazards that result in the deaths of nearly 6,000 workers a year, the serious injury of more than two million others, and the deaths of another 50,000 or more from cancer, lung and heart ailments and other occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances.

Much of that could be avoided by strengthening the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the two related acts that cover mine safety, and the agencies that administer the laws. For more than three decades, they've been the only real tools for protecting workers from physical harm. Yet the agencies have been woefully underfunded, woefully understaffed and woefully lax in enforcing the law - particularly during the Bush presidency.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, whose department oversees the agencies, has begun reversing their direction so as to provide workers the protection they've long been denied. She's hired dozens of new investigators to "vigorously enforce" the safety laws and regulations and develop badly needed new rules, for instance, is designing a much tougher enforcement program, and promises to issue long overdue regulations covering especially hazardous jobs.

Perhaps most important, Solis and President Obama have named one of the country's most distinguished safety experts to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). That's David Michaels, a research professor at George Washington University best known for his ground-breaking studies on the effects of occupational exposure to toxic chemicals.

As the New York Times said, Michaels "seems just the right man to steer the agency back toward an emphasis on protecting workers after eight years of lax oversight and favoritism to industry."

Solis and Michaels are expecting important help from congressional Democrats who've already introduced legislation to beef up the job safety laws, in part by increasing the penalties imposed on employers who violate them. As witnesses testified at congressional hearings this Spring, the penalties are so minimal that many employers simply ignore the law.

The legislation also would provide strong whistle-blower protections to workers who report safety violations and otherwise strengthen their job safety rights. And it would extend OSHA coverage to farm workers, local and state government employees and other groups not currently covered.

Unions also must deal with the steady flood of highly exploited immigrant workers, some in the country legally, some here illegally. Many employers eagerly hire such workers instead of unionized U.S. workers, since the immigrants generally have no choice but to accept whatever the pay and conditions offered them, and few, if any, have union rights.

It's clearly time for the globalization of labor, time for unions worldwide to seriously heed Karl Marx' plea for workers to unite across national boundaries. It's time for unions to challenge government policies in the United States and elsewhere that have allowed corporate employers to shift operations to poor countries, where workers are poorly paid and have few rights because they lack effective unions and other protections.

That has led to the flood of cheap labor into the United States from poorer countries, which has helped hold down the pay of U.S. workers and keep them from gaining broader rights and better working conditions. Much of the problem has been caused by U.S. trade policies that are designed to help the corporate interests favored by most U.S. lawmakers and thus allow the exploitation of workers both here and abroad.

What it amounts to is that powerful multi-national corporations are able to keep pay and working conditions at low levels by playing one country's workforce off against another's workforce while maximizing the corporation's profits. In the meantime, the size of the worldwide labor force has doubled, while the size of unions worldwide has lagged far behind. That has severely weakened the bargaining power of unions in dealing with global employers.

So what's to be done? Workers and their unions need to develop international standards for the treatment of workers everywhere and jointly demand that they be followed and that trade agreements carry provisions to protect and further workers' rights.

Workers employed by the same corporate employers in different parts of the world should act jointly - pool their resources, coordinate their efforts, help each other develop strong, effective unions and global strategies. They need to organize workers jointly and make the same demands for decent working conditions wherever the workers are employed, here or abroad -- and enforce those demands jointly, if necessary, by strikes and other actions.

Steps toward the globalization of labor by those and other means have already begun. Unions, for example, have put together an organization, the International Trade Union Confederation, that represents more than 150 million workers in more than 150 countries. The confederation's charter spells out its purpose and needs quite clearly: "Confronted by unbridled capitalist globalization, effective internationalism is essential to the future strength of trade unionism."

Labor's most pressing and immediate concerns are much closer to home. Some of the country's largest and most influential unions, notably the Service Employees union , continue the internal feuding over policies and jurisdiction that led the SEIU and six other unions to withdraw from the AFL-CIO and form a competing organization.

Labor is very much worried, too, that the unequivocal support for the Employee Free Choice Act and other pro-labor measures previously voiced by President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress is slipping away.

Labor's message to its political friends is clear: "Hold Fast"!

Copyright 2009 Dick Meister