Labor Pains

By Staff Report

Jan. 13, 2005

T he National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was once considered the crown jewel of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

    The National Labor Relations Board, which it created, was supposed to ensure that workers enjoyed the same freedom of association in the workplace that they did in the political arena. By guaranteeing that workers could organize without being fired or threatened, it redressed the growing imbalance of power in the workplace. By encouraging the growth of the labor movement, it stilled the fires of revolutionary socialism and Huey Long’s populism and laid the foundation for a new democratic pluralism by giving workers a seat in Washington next to business.

    For 45 years, the act worked reasonably well. The ranks of labor swelled without threatening the profitability of U.S. business. The gap between rich and poor, which had widened in the 1920s, was reduced. The AFL-CIO, courted by Republican and Democratic administrations, became part of the Washington consensus.

    But, in the 1980s, that consensus began to fall apart when the Reagan administration drastically cut the NLRB’s funding–causing huge backlogs of cases–and when its appointee to the board chipped away at employees’ bargaining rights and at penalties for unfair labor practices.

    Bill Clinton tried to undo some of the damage, but George W. Bush has resumed Reagan’s approach. Since becoming a majority in 2003, his appointees to the NLRB have taken business’ side in more than 25 controversial cases. None of these rulings was earthshaking, but together, they presage an erosion of workers’ ability to organize.

    To cut costs, business and public institutions have increasingly replaced full-time employees with temporary or apprentice workers who are not paid comparable wages or benefits. Nonstandard workers like these now make up about a quarter of the workforce. Labor unions have begun to organize them, but employers have objected, and the Bush board has taken their side—ruling, for example, that a union at an Oakdale, New York, long-term care facility cannot organize and represent both workers employed directly by the facility and workers who are employed by the facility but were sent there by a temporary staffing agency. It also blocked organizing of disabled janitors (because they are really engaged in rehabilitation rather than work) and artists’ models (who are seen as independent contractors because they own their robes).

    According to a study of 400 union election campaigns in manufacturing plants by Cornell sociologist Kate Bronfenbrenner, 51 percent of employers in 1998 and 1999 threatened to close a plant if a union won an election, and 25 percent fired at least one worker for union activity.

    Bush’s NLRB has balked at penalizing such companies–even though it is exactly these tactics that the act was created to outlaw. In 2000, a judge determined that Smithfield Food used 36 different illegal tactics in trying to block unionization at its plant–including firing 11 organizers–and ruled that the company would have to hold a union election, allow union organizers to post notices on workers’ bulletin boards, and let them talk to workers in “nonwork” areas of the plant. On appeal, however, Bush’s NLRB ruled that the union should be denied what it termed “extraordinary access” to the company’s workers.

    Union membership has plummeted from 23 percent in 1979 to 12.5 percent today. Some of that drop is due to a shift from unionized manufacturing industries to nonunionized white-collar services, but most of the decline stems from the NLRB’s acquiescence to aggressive–and often illegal–employer tactics.

    American workers are, of course, the principal victims of labor’s decline. (Union workers enjoy a 15.5 percent advantage in wages over nonunion workers with comparable skills and are 18.3 percent more likely to have health insurance.) But our democratic system as a whole is also a victim. Unions are an interest group, but one whose scope and concern allows it to speak for the public interest. And, because of its numbers and electoral influence, labor has been able to check the often narrow interests of Washington’s powerful business lobbies. Without labor’s clout, it’s unlikely that Medicare would have been enacted in 1965 or that the minimum wage would have been raised repeatedly over the last 50 years.

    With labor’s power ebbing, business has increasingly been able to dominate public policy issues, from taxes to environmental protection to Social Security. That might not bother Bush, Tom DeLay and Karl Rove, but it’s not a good thing for the rest of us.

Written by the editors of The New Republic, where this originally appeared.

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