Another Sellout of the Workers? Labor Law 'Reform.'

Article excerpt

It has been an age since working people saw labor law as any real protection, and now, as the Clinton Administration's Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations readies its preliminary report on labor law reform, many workers and unions fear that instead of serving the majority of America's people, Washington will tailor the rules even further to fit the needs of corporate special interests.

A year ago Secretary of Labor Robert Reich suggested the direction in which the commission was heading with his observation that "the jury is still out on whether the traditional union is necessary for the new workplace." At the time, a series of hearings were being held throughout the country at which workers explained to commissioners the realities of work life in America. They spoke of their powerlessness in the absence of a union; of the terror accompanying organizing drivers; of the endless delays by the National Labor Relations Board, to the benefit of unionbusting employers; of employers who regularly and with impunity fire workers for organizing activities; of the further obstacles to negotiating a first contract; of strikes broken by scabs who often as not are made permanent replacements; of companies that close and reopen, changing names and owners and tossing out union contracts undeterred.

Presented with such a litany of abuses against workers, the commissioners must not have been overly surprised that most employers took the position that little reform of the labor law is needed. Indeed, it was union pressure for a far-reaching review of the law that pushed the Administration to set up the commission. But as the commissioners draft the findings of their investigation - to be released in late May, with recommendations to come in November - it appears that rather than propose steps to enforce existing rights or expand them, the Administration's advisers will strike at the heart of workers' fundamental right to form independent organizations. For months now people have been talking darkly of the return of the company union.

Such "unions" are prohibited under Section 8(a)(2) of the National Labor Relations Act, a k a the Wagner Act. The law was written in the 1930s, after years in which employer-dominated unions had been established to prevent workers from organizing unions of their own. John D. Rockefeller, for example, drew up the Colorado Industrial Plan for worker-management cooperation in 1914. "Until labor and capital join hands and recognize their interest is a common interest," Rockefeller announced, " . . . there can be no progress." Just weeks earlier his goons had slaughtered the wives and children of striking workers in the infamous Ludlow massacre.

Although conditions have changed since then (instead of being killed outright, strikers' families today are starved and driven into penury), American corporatists articulate a vision of progress that's not very different from Rockefeller's. Its watchword is "cooperation" and its symbol is the worker-management team. For the past twenty years such in-plant committees have become increasingly common in both union and nonunion settings. In every case the object is to undermine the idea that workers and bosses have distinct, and fundamentally antagonistic, interests and to get the two sides to work together for a common corporate goal: increased productivity and competitiveness, more plainly understood as doing more work in less time with fewer people for lower pay.

For bosses, there's only one problem with the various schemes for labor-management cooperation: Many of them are illegal. In 1992 the N.L.R.B. ruled that worker-management committees are de facto company unions, and are thus prohibited under Section 8(a)(2), where they are used to campaign against unions in organizing drives or where they are set up without negotiations in a union workplace.

The N.L.R.B.'s decision involved a small electronics company in Indiana called Electromation, and it sent a special shudder through the high-tech manufacturing sector, where the rate of unionization is extremely low and experimentation with cooperative schemes is extensive. …