Sunday, February 1, 2009

eating Obama's labor pudding

By now it’s clear to most people who pay attention to those things that Obama’s cabinet leans more to the dark side. Hillary Clinton as Head Hawk is certainly one of its lowest ebbs, though hopefully at least it keeps her out of Obama's electoral hair for a few years. Summers over Stiglitz, well, what can we say? Even the one real bright spot – Hilda Solis for Labor Secretary – is sort of a candle under a bush, if she gets through, as Robert Reich and Richard Trumka have made clear: Who gives a flying frak at a rolling doughnut about Labor Secretary? What can she do anymore in that office?

But - ‘things’ have been looking up this week. Obama says new federal contractors now have to first offer work to the employees currently doing the work before bringing in replacements. They can stop running anti-union campaigns on the federal tab, too. They may also have to start doing their work under Project Labor Agreements (PLA), one of those things they don’t teach us about in civics class, or in the media, because it’s too cool.

And when Obama signed his first ever bill into law, for pure symbolic value and for real, it was a good one: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, another of those little things a Dem can do that actually make a measurable difference in real people’s everyday lives. (It’s an example of what my good friend in Mississippi John Conlon was talking about when he used to say the Democrats, for all their obnoxious shortcomings, actually spend more time talking about things that help poor people than all the leftist parties in America!)

It’s also an excellent example of what to do when the courts stand in the way of justice (pun intended), like declaring corporations to be people, etc.

Not that most workers will be able to access these Ledbetter benefits any more than OSHA rights or most of the other rights we supposedly have, unless they have a good union to fight for them – which brings us to my second hobby horse for today…

First, I have to say, you gotta hate the name: Task Force on Middle Class Working Families, but not for all the reasons some of my comrades on the Left will hate. (I think names like the “Working Families Party” and so on are not the heterosexist exclusion that some of my friends in the gay rights movement argue. I know for a firsthand fact, for example, that the founders of the WFP had this in mind: a family can include anybody, and talking about working families instead of just workers broadens the scope to childcare, education, etc.)

But this bizarre faith of almost all Americans that “I am middle class” is a dangerous lie. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt. There is a class war raging in this country and so far it’s pretty lopsided: the rich are screwing the bejeezus out of the poor and working classes, every year wringing a new drop out of our hapless asses. And it does none of us any good to pretend that we’re “middle class,” like Jews in Nazi Germany calling ourselves “apolitical” or “patriotic” – it just misses the point.

Anyway. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and in the pocketbook, the doctor’s office, the classroom, you know… And all that remains to be seen. And it’s not a particularly hopeful sign that Biden is at the helm of this thing – with Summers in there, too.

But the impetus came from Change To Win, that ‘long’ lost twin of the AFL-CIO, which is a hopeful. Could we actually have a prez who listens to organized labor and other social justice groups? Could it be?

“I don’t see organized labor as part of the problem,” the man says. “To me, it’s part of the solution.”

OK, that would have sounded lukewarm just a couple decades ago. Now we can watch with glee as the Rush Limbaughs and Walmart CEOs get all apoplectic.

But this: “You cannot have a strong middle class without a strong labor union.” Now that’s pretty damn good – apart from that weirdness about the “middle class” again. As propaganda, it works, though. I wouldn’t go as far as Harold Meyerson in the TAPPED blog:

“But for a few stray remarks from Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, that’s the strongest endorsement of the case for unions that an American president has ever made.”

I mean, really. Take a whiff: getting the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) kicking and screaming through Congress and around a snotty-hostile Supreme Court that killed FDR’s first attempts on the grounds of so-called “property rights” (well, whoop-de-do, as my grandmother would say), hey, that has to count for a lot. Now, it’s true that FDR was under a lot of pressure to do something Keynesian – and fast – and I’m not one to say vespers at the altar of the NLRA. It’s flaws are legion. Buttload legion. Starting with: agricultural employees, some of whom are now partly as a result of NLRA exclusions reduced to modern-day slavery, as well as domestic workers (ditto) got nada. In the cold. To the wolves.

Still, the proof of the NLRA pudding for just about forty years was nothing to sneeze at. Unions exploded. That includes existing unions increasing in size, faster than the union leaderships actually wanted (because it made their memberships harder to control) as well as new unions popping up like mushrooms all over the country. What this meant where the rubber hits the pavement Meyerson puts down crystal clear:

It was “the only time in American history that median household income increased at the identical level that productivity increased […], when both rates increased by 104 percent.”
And on that note, and most importantly, union leaders seem to be feeling a bit warmer and less fuzzy about the Obama phenom’s enthusiasm for the Employee Free Choice Act. Rahm Emmanuel had been giving off some noxious gas about the Employee Free Choice Act, which is long overdue by a couple decades. That’s about how long ago the NLRA stopped doing its job. And it’s been doing its job less and less every year. Too quote one of mine and my kids’ recent fave movies: “We’ve lost engine one! And engine two is no longer on fire!”

The Employee Free Choice Act has big holes, too. Ag workers, domestic folks, S.O.L. But the Employee Free Choice Act fixes the biggest engine-failure of the NLRA: the fact that American workers today, almost alone in the industrialized world, can face a brutal gauntlet of tyrannical ruthlessness in-between signing cards saying they want a union and the actual NLRB-supervised election.

The Employee Free Choice Act eliminates that anti-worker “waiting period”: workers want a union, 50% + 1 sign a card saying so, they have a union, period. It’s simple, it’s civilized, democratic, it’s the right of free association, and that’s exactly why Walmart and Bank of America don’t want it. That’s why they’re prepared to fight what the New York Times called “Armageddon” to block it. They, and the media (which is also “they” because it’s big business, too), know what they’ve been keeping most of us from learning: most Americans consistently tell pollsters that they would join a union if they could, and the only thing keeping them from it is the NLRA’s waiting period, that and the multi-billion-dollar union-busting industry that makes a damn good living in houses-they-don’t-even-know-how-many with their kids in big-name private schools taking advantage of that hole.

The trouble in passing the Employee Free Choice Act is not, strictly speaking, the prez, of course. The bill passed the House already, but couldn’t get past the Senate Republican filibuster in the old Congress. That’s why 60 is the magic number for labor, to defeat a filibuster in the Senate. With Al Franken in the Senate, maybe this time it can happen. But some of the Democrats are unreliable on this one, so Obama’s use of the bully pulpit – and other White House arm-twisting – may be crucial. So this is a good sign.

We have a lot of fires to put out, not all of them Bush-fires, and then probably many lifetimes of work to do after that to even approach justice for the downtrodden of the world. But with stuff like this coming out of Washington, after so many years of bitter hopelessness, it’s hard not to dream about those golden years that didn’t seem all that golden at the time, between 1948 and 1973.


VeganLinda said...

Excellent, as always.

Ricky Baldwin said...

Thanks, Linda! Can I take credit for all the ideas I stole?