Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 15, 2009

Whether To Repeat Or Avoid We Better Learn Our History
Organized labor’s overarching priority, the modest reform of labor law known as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), was first introduced in congress about the time Bush invaded Iraq. It has had past success in the House but always blocked in the Senate. As unions go all out now for what everyone recognizes as their last best chance of enactment rhetoric is not only heating up but turning to broader questions--and appeals to history.

For example, today’s Washington Post carries an article entitled “Labor Union Bill Raises Broader Capitalism Issues.” Actually it’s not all that broad but features opponents of the bill explaining that globalization, not labor law, is the main reason for the decline of unions. They undoubtedly have a point. The historic bastions of blue collar unionism have lost hundreds of thousands of members just to offshoring by U.S. based corporations. But this ignores the obstructions that labor law puts in the way of unions organizing fresh forces–or effectively defending present ones for that matter.

The most common argument advanced by “moderate” opponents of reform, including some Democrats, is that the economic crisis is not a good time to destabilize labor relations, hampering recovery. A usual retort from EFCA supporters is that New Deal legislation such as the Wagner Act, and Fair Labor Standards Act, was enacted during the Great Depression when, at times, unemployment ran twenty percent or more. SEIU’s Andy Stern told the Post,

“The truth is that Franklin Roosevelt passed those laws under similar circumstances, and from 1945 to 1974, we had an era where workers' wages and productivity was joined together...It was probably the most tested economic stimulus of any public policy that has worked for us.”

Chairman Andy begins by attributing generosity to FDR and marking labor’s progress from passage of the Wagner Act. That law, taking effect in the election year of 1936, did remove some previous restrictions on unions. It came as a response to successful local labor battles that in some cases took on the character of semi-insurrections such as in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco in 1934. The Wagner Act was passed not to promote union struggles but an anxious attempt to regulate them.

The surge in unionization in the late 1930s neither promoted nor retarded “economic stimulus.” There was still mass unemployment as late as 1941. It was the mobilization for World War II that brought an end to the Great Depression, not the New Deal. It was rebuilding the war-torn economies of Europe and Japan, along with acquiring the markets of former European colonies, that fueled American manufacturing well in to the 1970s.

After American labor’s greatest strike wave in 1945-46 congress replaced the Wagner Act with the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. Among its changes were the outlawing of mass pickets to block worksite entrances; prohibition of hot cargo refusal to handle goods of a struck company; denying the right to secondary boycotts of those selling products of companies on strike; authorization for states to enact so-called “right-to-work” laws; and granting the President the right to seek injunctions to prevent or end strikes. The law was passed over President Truman’s veto–but the man from Missouri used the strike breaking injunctions under the new law more times than any other President.

None of these measures that bar labor’s most effective methods of struggle are addressed by EFCA. They are not even on Chairman Andy’s–or any other major union official’s–wish list. They envision a peaceful, nonconfrontational sign up for recognition followed by lawyers arguing in arbitration for a first contract. Once those initial obstacles are overcome they hope the employers will see they’re not so unreasonable and will be open to “partnership.”

While supporting EFCA, I believe we must answer the accompanying distortion of our history, revised to promote the class collaboration perspective that undermines our unions today. My long time friend David Riehle, an accomplished labor historian as well as a rail labor leader in St Paul, will help us sort out our class heritage in his presentation “The Truth About the New Deal,” at our April 3-4 conference in Kansas City.

History Lesson Deux
The boards controlled by the UNITE wing of UNITE-HERE have voted to separate from both the hospitality component of the union and Change to Win. They will seek to return the 150,000 textile, garment, and laundry members they claim, along with the Amalgamated Bank, to the AFL-CIO.

In a staff memo that has made its way on to the Internet, UNITE president Bruce Raynor offers an odd historical defense for splitting the union.

“This schism is unprecedented in our union but it has historic parallels such as the secession of a large portion of the membership of the United Electrical Workers to form the IUE in 1949and 1950. Today the IUE and the UE continue as separate unions but they also act together when the interests of their membership require, such as bargaining with General Electric Corporation, a major employer where they both represent GE workers.”

The IUE “secession” with which Raynor apparently identifies was part of a Cold War split in the CIO, engineered by the government, implemented by a bureaucracy consolidating in the CIO around Phil Murray and Walter Reuther. The original aim of the IUE was to destroy the UE. They worked in close collaboration with the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists and red-baiting politicians such as Hubert Humphrey. They also had competitors in this mission from the AFL and some CIO unions.

But the UE, though greatly weakened, was not destroyed. They survived by clinging to the internal democracy and adversarial unionism that they were founded upon. The IUE, and several other unions, had to eventually agree to coordinate bargaining with the UE at GE, Westinghouse and other companies with multi-union contracts.

The IUE in fact no longer exists as an independent union. They merged several years ago in to the Communications Workers. The UE carries on independently and can be proud of their remarkable recent victory at Republic Windows. It seems strange Raynor would want to claim affinity with the Cold Warriors of the original IUE splitters. Certainly neither he nor his hospitality rival can stake any credible claim to the traditions of the UE.

Speaker Addition
We’re happy to announce we’ve added Steven Ashby, an Associate Professor, Labor Education Program, University of Illinois, to our speaker list at the Kansas City conference. Ashby co-authored, with CJ Hawking, a just released book, Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement. The book has received enthusiastic recommendation from such reviewers as Jeremy Brecher, Staughton Lynd, Bill Fletcher, and Peter Rachleff.

Many of you will remember the brave fight put up by workers at AE Staley, in Decatur, Illinois, in the mid-90s. Their Road Warriors roamed the country building impressive solidarity, including several visits to Kansas City. The KC Labor Party twice organized caravans to Decatur in support of mass rallies and civil disobedience. I look forward to reading the book and listening to the talk.

In Brief...
¶ Opponents of construction of Sunflower’s coal-fired power plants in Kansas are mobilizing for Clean Energy Day II in Topeka this Thursday, March 19. There will be a Noon rally at the Capitol to support Governor Sebelius’s continuing efforts to block the project. In the afternoon Kansas residents will lobby their legislators. For more details click
here.

¶ A headline in today’s New York Times proclaims, Administration Is Open to Taxing Health Benefits. This, of course, was raised by Bush and strongly condemned by labor and Democrats. The lead paragraph reads, “The Obama administration is signaling to Congress that the president could support taxing some employee health benefits, as several influential lawmakers and many economists favor, to help pay for overhauling the health care system.”

¶ Declining home values, a crashing stock market, and, in millions of cases lost paychecks, resulted in an eighteen percent loss in household wealth in 2008. The trend so far in 2009 is on target for trillions more in losses.

¶ More than 700 UNITE-HERE employees of Aramark picketed a Canucks hockey game in Vancouver over wages and job security. They handed out peanuts to approaching fans to symbolize the company’s offer. A big fight is also shaping up on possible temporary job loss when the 2010 Olympics take over the GM Place hockey venue where they work.

¶ There’s further criticism surfacing about the CAW’s concession deal with GM-Canada. On Wednesday Chrysler president Tom LaSorda said the GM terms were “unacceptable” and threatened to pull out of Canada. A Ford vice-president piped up, “We believe the recently negotiated agreement between General Motors Canada and the Canadian Auto Workers will not keep Ford's Canadian operations competitive in today's global economy.”

That’s all for this week.

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