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What Can Labor Win if it Backs Obama's Re-Election?

If unions are going to be involved in electoral politics this year, what can they expect to win? And is Washington even relevant to progressive organizing efforts?

 Amy Dean talks to Richard Kahlenberg and Richard Bensinger about reforms that could finally give battle-weary union members a reason to send Obama and other Democrats back to Washington.

As usual in an election year, the labor movement has a lot of fair-weather friends. Late last month, when hard up for cash for its national convention, the Democratic Party turned to unions for funds.  Labor refused to bankroll the convention, in part because unions are upset that it will be taking place in North Carolina, a so-called "right to work" state.

But the party's request was just one part of what will be an extended process of solicitation. As much as ever, Democratic politicians rely on labor's financial contributions and, even more important, its person-to-person field operation to put them in office.

What labor gets in return for its support is often less clear. Unions' central legislative priority, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), died a quiet death during President Obama's first term. Other labor law reforms that might restore the right to organize in America and modernize the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) have been nowhere on the agenda. Politicians eager to proclaim themselves friends of working people in the heat of the election cycle have not stepped up to change this situation once they head to Congress.

So, if unions are going to be involved in electoral politics this year, what can they expect to win? And is Washington even relevant to progressive organizing efforts?

To discuss these questions, I brought together two experienced strategists. Richard Bensinger, formerly the organizing director of the AFL-CIO and currently an organizing director at the United Auto Workers (UAW), brings decades of organizing experience to the table. Meanwhile, Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author, most recently, of " Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice" (with Moshe Marvit), has been proposing some new ideas for labor law reform.

An edited and condensed version of our discussion follows. (The Century Foundation is also hosting  a fuller transcript.)

Amy Dean: Are there reforms that can rebuild labor's role as a legitimate steward of the economy? Does Washington even really matter for our organizing?

Richard Kahlenberg: Labor has been backing the Employee Free Choice Act, which I also support, but it's pretty much dead now. It seems to me that President Obama could really show his support for labor and energize labor if he were to get behind the notion of amending the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act now protects people from discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, and the like. We should add to that the idea that you shouldn't be discriminated against for simply exercising your right to join a union and trying to become a member of the middle class.

This is a much simpler proposition than the Employee Free Choice Act, which dealt with a number of issues that were complex in nature. That allowed opponents of EFCA to exploit the misunderstandings about what the act was designed to do.

Getting across the basic idea that people have a civil right to organize, and that they shouldn't be fired or otherwise disciplined for exercising that right, is something that Washington could play a big role in supporting.

Richard Bensinger: Everyone in the country - and really in the world - is talking about income inequality and the destruction of the middle class. But it's impossible to fully address that issue without making the right to organize a union central to a debate. There's not going to be income equality in this country unless there's a vibrant labor movement. The threat of union used to make some employers honest. Now that unions are down to only six percent of the private sector, even the threat of unions has been diminished greatly. So I think that it should be a top priority of unions and any administration to try to reform the labor laws.

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