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What Happens If Labor Dies?

The only way unions can regain their strength and provide a counterweight to corporate power is if liberals join the fight.

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Janis’s thesis was that businesses that operate on government-owned or -assisted properties or that have government contracts should repay the city by bettering the lives of the workers they employ and the communities in which they operate. LAANE’s first major victory was persuading the city council to require cleaning companies with which it had contracts to pay their workers a living wage—a sum several dollars higher than California’s minimum wage (or a bit lower than that if they provided their workers with health coverage). Over the years, the scope of such ordinances was broadened to encompass card-check unionization at hotels and sports arenas that received redevelopment funds; local-hiring requirements for developers of major projects; and clean-air standards for trucks at the Port of Los Angeles. Some of these ordinances have served as models for living-wage and other laws in more than 140 other cities. “A bank that makes an investment wants a return for its money, and so does the public,” Janis says. “The returns to the public should include good jobs, child-care centers, cleaner air, affordable housing.”

Realizing such returns, of course, requires political heft. That’s where Contreras came in. A few months after he took control of the federation, he turned to some immigrant-dominated local unions and asked them to do something that no one had really done in far-flung Los Angeles: walk precincts, lots of them. The federation soon developed an extensive, permanent field operation, particularly in Latino and black neighborhoods. It recruited its own candidates to run for office, authored its own platform for elections (including support for the programs LAANE promoted), and won election after election in a majority of council districts.

The premise behind the Los Angeles model is that liberal cities can enact pro-worker reforms that are more difficult to pass in statehouses and all but impossible in Congress. Which raises a question: What if, the next time we have a Democratic president and Congress, labor didn’t return to the Sisyphean challenge of reforming the National Labor Relations Act but instead advocated scrapping it altogether? The act preempts states and cities from establishing labor-relations statutes of their own (with the exception of Taft-Hartley’s provision allowing states to pass right-to-work laws). Suppose more liberal states were free to regulate labor relations in their jurisdictions. They might let workers win union recognition though card check or require companies that refuse to sign a first contract with their workers to submit to binding arbitration after six or nine months have elapsed. (These were all provisions in the labor-reform bill that failed to clear the Senate in 2010.)

Labor economist Richard Freeman has estimated the gains and losses unions would experience if labor law were left to the states. In industries like manufacturing, where businesses could relocate to anti-labor states, unions would suffer a decline in members, which Freeman calculates at around 500,000. But the gain in industries like construction, hotels, and retail—sectors where businesses can’t relocate—could total four million in union-friendly states.

Freeman’s suppositions about union--friendly states, which he defined as the 27 states that haven’t passed right-to-work laws, are probably too optimistic, however. Many of those states don’t have liberals or Democrats in power. Even in such progressive bastions as California or New York, there’d be no guarantee that Governor Jerry Brown, who vetoed a card-check bill for California farmworkers last year, or Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has cultivated an adversarial relationship with many of New York’s unions, would be inclined to make it easier for workers to organize in the private sector. Few states, far fewer than 27, are home to labor movements strong enough to persuade state government to pass legislation, in the face of the almost-certain outrage from business, that would make organizing easier.

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