Magazine article The Nation

If Politics Got Realhhh

Magazine article The Nation

If Politics Got Realhhh

Article excerpt

If politics got real, the next big campaign for civil rights legislation would be launched on behalf of American workers--citizens routinely deprived of their right to organize and speak for themselves by corporate coercion and blatant illegalities. In order to jump-start this campaign, however, the labor movement would have to change itself.

First, unions will never win significant allies for reforming labor law as long as most unions are indifferent to organizing the masses of unrepresented workers. Second, labor must overturn old assumptions by proposing fresh terms for a grand compromise with its business adversaries. In exchange for winning the speedier method of card-check registration--under which a new bargaining unit is certified when a majority of workers sign up for it--unions might give up their historic opposition to right-to-work laws and accept the open shop with voluntary dues-paying by employees. Business would likely reject the offer, but it would authenticate labor's own commitment to reform.

Right now, despite the dramatic turnaround launched by AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, time is running against labor, because the globalizing industrial structure keeps moving jobs away from the old union strongholds into unorganized sectors. Although the AFL's membership grew by 265,000 in 1999--the best organizing year in two decades--it was merely treading water in terms of the expanding labor market, and less than half the increase was in the private economy. Fewer than one in seven workers now belongs to a union, compared with roughly one in four in the seventies. Many labor officials fear, at least privately, that the turnaround cannot be sustained unless there is a strategic breakout of some kind.

The issue of labor rights has not been visible in national politics for at least twenty years, while the systematic abuses and unpunished illegalities have steadily spread and worsened, including during the Clinton years. As usual, the prospects for reform legislation look bleak, but, ironically, the debate over globalization is changing domestic politics. As young people take up the fight for workers' rights elsewhere in the world, they are discovering that the same struggle exists at home and that the principal victims are now women, minorities and new immigrants toiling in low-wage jobs. The loose alliance of unions, environmentalists, churches and human rights activists that came together as the "Seattle Movement" creates an opportunity for a broad-based movement of conscience, much like civil rights campaigns that won strong antidiscrimination laws on race, gender, age and disability.

More than 10,000 workers are fired every year for attempting to organize (probably far more if a full accounting could be made). That is illegal. But it is now a routine tactic of management--workers are fired illegally in one of every three organizing campaigns, according to surveys by Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner. An employer who fires a few rank-and-file leaders will intimidate the others and likely avoid real punishment. It typically takes two years of hearings and appeals before the National Labor Relations Board to get a fired worker reinstated with back pay. By then, the fight is usually long over, the fired workers long gone. Employers are entitled to seek injunctions against unions and sue for damages, but workers are not allowed to sue the companies. Indeed, the legal remedies provided to employees in the major antidiscrimination laws are missing from labor law--one reason many companies behave lawlessly.

Half the firms that face organizing drives, Bronfenbrenner found, threaten to shut down if workers unionize--an illegal form of intimidation. …

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