Will Labor Come Back?

By Featherstone, Liza | The Nation, September 20, 2004 | Go to article overview

Will Labor Come Back?


Featherstone, Liza, The Nation


Labor Day has never been a very inspiring holiday, established as it was by late-nineteenth-century union bosses as a homegrown alternative to May Day, which was viewed as having uncomfortably leftist, European associations. American workers today, of course, would love to have the healthcare, organizing rights and vacations enjoyed by their counterparts in most of Europe, thanks to the "radical" labor organizing traditions on that side of the Atlantic. The Bush Administration is moving in the opposite direction, although there are some hopeful signs that labor's fighting back.

Celebrating the holiday early, in August the Bush White House and its rich friends no doubt toasted new regulations that will deprive up to 6 million additional American workers of overtime, defined as time-and-a-half pay for working more than forty hours a week. Even more disturbing, in June the Administration's National Labor Relations Board quietly moved to "review" the legitimacy of the card-check procedure, by which an employer recognizes a union when presented with cards signed by more than half of the shop's employees. The labor board has upheld card check many times since the 1930s, when the procedure was first established. Repealing it would effectively deprive countless Americans of the right to organize and put an immediate halt to many of labor's most promising campaigns.

The Bush Administration might have enjoyed a champagne toast to another recent victory over workers, also engineered by its NLRB. In July the agency declared that graduate students do not have the right to organize and that under federal law they are not employees, thus abruptly reversing a legal precedent set by several earlier decisions. The decision fell sharply along party lines: The three judges voting for it were Republicans; the two dissenters were Democrats. Presidential hopeful John Kerry, meanwhile, has firmly opposed the Bush Administration on overtime as well as card check, even co-sponsoring the Employee Free Choice Act, which would require an employer to recognize a union when 50 percent of its workers sign cards. At present, recognition is up to the employer, so if enacted this bill would hugely improve workers' chances of organizing.

These issues alone--and of course there are many more--are reason enough to applaud unions' vigorous contribution to the defeat of George W. Bush, which has unified and energized the rank and file more effectively than anything in years. Many new organizations working to defeat Bush have strong ties to unions, including Grassroots Democrats and Voices for Working Families. Labor is also one of the major sponsors of America Coming Together (ACT), one of the year's most dynamic 527s, devoted to mobilizing voters in seventeen swing states. With more than 1,400 paid canvassers and numerous volunteers, ACT aims to make 17 million "contacts" with swing and base voters before November. More than 50,000 SEIU members knock on doors and make phone calls for Kerry. At least 2,000 of them have taken time off from work to do so. SEIU has put some $65 million into the effort to defeat Bush, while AFSCME has contributed another $48 million.

At the same time, it's increasingly clear that for unions to make significant advances--to grow in numbers and influence, rather than just deflect right-wing assaults and accept their diminished social and political relevance--they must also think outside the Democratic Party. …

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