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."