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Wisconsin Shows Failure of Democrats to Back Pro-Labor Reforms

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We should all know by now that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attacks on organized labor (and similar attacks by Republicans in Ohio, Michigan, and beyond) are not about balancing budgets. They are about undermining the single most important institutional force opposing exclusive big business control over U.S. politics. As Fox News anchor Shep Smith succinctly explained in a moment of refreshing candor for the network: “Bust the unions; it’s over.”

Now, it’s not at all surprising that, upon taking power, the Republicans would act quickly and forcefully to bolster their base (strengthening the power of corporate America) and disempower their political foes in the labor movement. Such is the essence of hard-nosed politics.

When Democrats take power, we would expect the converse: strong, swift, and sweeping actions to protect Americans’ right to join a union. Right?

Wrong. Instead of voicing a full-throated defense of workers’ rights, Democrats have consistently regarded protecting collective bargaining, updating ancient labor laws, and eliminating rampant corporate abuse of the system to be special interest concerns, of no real priority to the party as a whole.

Carter, Clinton, Obama. Again and again, labor has been told that its legislative priorities should take a back seat to more pressing matters, and again and again moments of political opportunity have passed with no action being taken to shore up labor rights.

The picture is not pretty:

Throughout the country there has been a severe erosion of the right to organize....Grim statistics...point to a regime of fear, intimidation and isolation which characterizes many American workplaces—and denies workers the right to organize. One in ten US workers who attempt to organize is illegally fired, with reinstatement a lengthy bureaucratic procedure taking up to three years. The US remains one of the only advanced industrial jurisdictions where the majority of workers are denied basic employment protection, such as requiring “just cause” for employment termination. Rather, they are subject to the doctrine of “employment at will” essentially permitting employees to be fired at the employers’ whim.

That’s Elaine Bernard, writing in 1993, shortly after Bill Clinton was elected. Bernard outlined a variety of labor law reforms urgently needed at the time. Sadly, they’re pretty much the exact same ones needed today. When he wasn’t busy passing NAFTA, Bill Clinton didn’t end up finding a lot of time to fight for these types of changes. Since then, the percentage of the American workforce represented by unions has only continued to decline.

With Obama, labor came prepared with a clear legislative focus: the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which included card check neutrality and other important reforms. Obama vowed to support it.

Yet, once again, while business geared up for an aggressive fight, Democrats considered unions’ demands to be not particularly pressing. The movement was told to wait, and we saw headlines like, “ Labor’s ‘priority’ on back burner.” Late soon become never: after Democrats lost their sixty-seat majority in the Senate in late 2009, EFCA was considered dead.

Harold Meyerson, who has provided some of the better coverage of Democratic failures to support labor, writes in the Washington Post:

By my count, this marks the fourth time in the past half-century that labor’s efforts to strengthen workers’ ability to organize have been deferred by the Democratic presidents and the heavily Democratic Congresses they supported. In 1965, about the only piece of Great Society legislation not enacted was the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act provision that gave states the power to block unions from claiming as members all the employees in workplaces where they had won contracts. In 1979, as American management was beginning to invest heavily in union-busting endeavors, the first effort to reform labor law failed to win cloture in the Senate by one vote as President Jimmy Carter stood idly by. In 1994, President Bill Clinton responded to a similar labor-backed effort by appointing a commission to recommend changes in labor law to the next Congress—which turned out to be run by Newt Gingrich. And last year, by asking his labor supporters to wait, Obama ensured—unintentionally, of course—that the next effort to revive organizing must wait until the next overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.

Meanwhile, the percentage of American workers in unions steadily declines. During the 1965 effort, more than 30 percent of private-sector workers belonged to unions. In 1979, the share was 21 percent; in 1994, 11 percent; and in 2009, just 7.2 percent. When the next chance to rewrite labor law comes around, the rate of private-sector unionization could be down to trace elements....

In a deunionized America, it’s not clear who, if anyone, will fund campaigns such as those the unions funded this year, for universal health care and financial regulation. It’s also not clear who, if anyone, will persuade working-class whites to vote Democratic. (Over the past half-century, white male union members have voted Democratic at a rate 20 percentage points higher than their nonunion counterparts.)

No nation has ever been home to a middle-class majority absent a sizable labor movement. In their failure to advance labor’s prospects, the Democrats condemn themselves to a future of fewer Democratic voters and their nation to a future of mass downward mobility.

Meyerson elaborates on his argument in a longer article here.

Admittedly, card check neutrality was a hard sell in the Senate. Its demise was not entirely the fault of the administration, which had to deal with the Blue Dogs and Benedict Arnolds such as Senator Arlen Specter. But the Democratic Party as a whole bears responsibility for an inexcusable failure to pass the rest of the reforms in EFCA. As Nathan Newman explains, even without card check, they might have secured important provisions ensuring faster unionization elections, stronger penalties for employees who illegally fire pro-labor employees, and arbitration for first contracts—all things that could make a significant difference for those organizing the hostile private sector.

As it is, employers can continue to break the law with near impunity, and unions continue their long decline. This is not just a disaster for working people. It is a recipe for self-destruction on the part of the Democratic Party.

Republicans like Scott Walker and his well-heeled donors get it. Unfortunately, the Democrats don’t.

(Cross-posted from the "Arguing the World" blog at Dissent magazine.)