Kelly Candaele

On 9/11 Anniversary, Union Workers Erecting One World Trade Center Take Pride in Their History-Making Endeavor

The construction elevator of One World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan is attached to the outside of the 104-story tower. From the ground it looks like a giant zipper, moving slowly up and down as the car, filled with workers and their tools, makes the six-minute, 1,776-foot journey from ground level to the top. (The building’s height was purposefully designed to match our year of independence.)

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Fair Labor Laws Would Benefit All Working Americans

A bill now moving through Congress to expand workers' rights could be the most important legislation in decades to advance the concerns of environmentalists, public schools, higher education, senior citizens, universal healthcare, housing, women's and gay rights, and civil rights.

The bill -- called the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) -- is understandably the top priority for America's labor unions. It would mean better wages, benefits and working conditions for all employees. It would also make it more likely for unions to win organizing drives in workplaces.

But why should other constituencies rally behind this effort to reform the nation's labor laws? The reason is simple. The labor movement is still the most effective political force for electing liberal candidates at the local, state and federal levels. Once in office, pro-labor politicians are typically also the strongest advocates of strong environment laws, funding for public schools and higher education, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, universal health insurance, affordable housing and protection of Social Security. A strong labor movement benefits these other agendas and causes, which have been under attack by conservative forces in recent years.

The Employee Free Choice Act would level the playing field between management and workers, making it more likely that union organizing campaigns will be successful. It would help reverse the labor movement's four-decade decline in membership.

Current federal laws are an impediment to union organizing rather than a protector of workers' rights. Elections held under current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules are bureaucratic and inefficient, and put workers and their unions at a disadvantage. Any employer with a clever attorney can stall union elections, giving management time to scare the living daylights out of potential recruits. According to Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University, one-quarter of all employers illegally fire at least one employee during union campaigns. In 2005, over 31,000 workers were illegally disciplined or fired for union activity, according to the NLRB. The lucky workers get reinstated years later after exhaustive court battles. Indeed, penalties for these violations are so minimal that most employers treat them as a minor cost of doing business. Employees who initially signed union cards are often long gone or too afraid to vote by the time the NLRB conducts an election.

The rules are stacked against workers, making it extremely difficult for even the most committed and talented organizers and workers to win union elections. Big business spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to hire anti-union consultants who use elaborate strategies to keep unions out. Employers in the United States can require workers to attend meetings on work time, where company managers and consultants give anti-union speeches, show anti-union films and distribute anti-union literature. Unions have no equivalent rights of access to employees. To reach them, organizers must visit their homes or hold secret meetings. This is hardly workplace democracy.

Business leaders argue that employees' anti-union attitudes account for the decline in union membership, which was 12 percent last year after peaking at 35 percent in the 1950s. In fact, a December 2006 poll found that 58 percent of nonmanagerial workers would join a union if they could. But they won't vote for a union, much less participate openly in an organizing drive, if they fear losing their jobs for doing so.

The Employee Free Choice Act would allow employees to form unions by simply signing a card stating that they desire union representation. If a majority of employees in a workplace sign a card, the company would be obligated to bargain with the union the employees choose. The law would also increase penalties for companies who violate worker rights and provide for mediation and arbitration for first contract disputes -- a key provision given that employers often drag out negotiations to wear down a new union.

If this law were adopted, the United States would match other democracies in the protection of worker rights. In Canada, for example, the "card check" process is in place, and union membership is more than twice that in the United States.

American workers' rights gained a foothold in 1935 with passage of the National Labor Relations Act, commonly called the Wagner Act. The Wagner Act granted workers the legal protection to organize and set up a democratic process in the workplace to gain representation. The NLRB was set up to oversee the effective functioning of workplace democracy. The frequently violent clashes between workers and owners was channeled into a government mechanism for managing conflict.

After World War II, unions faced a major assault from business and conservative forces. At that point, the labor movement was bigger and more powerful than it had ever been, representing more than a third of American workers. In 1947, the Republican Congress enacted the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act over the veto of President Harry Truman, who described the act as a "slave-labor bill." The new law restricted workers' rights to strike, picket and boycott.

During the subsequent three decades, business groups used the Taft-Hartley restrictions to reduce union membership and political clout. In 1978, the labor movement sought to restore some of the workers' rights that had been eroded by Taft-Hartley. A labor law reform bill was defeated by one vote in the Senate. Pressured by heavy lobbying from business, Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas was instrumental in the failure to override a Republican filibuster.

This victory strengthened business' hand even more. Nothing symbolized this more than President Ronald Reagan's busting of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association after they engaged in an illegal strike in 1981. Under Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and now George W. Bush, federal agencies designed to protect workers rights -- such as the NLRB and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- have had their budgets cut and their enforcement staffs eviscerated. Meanwhile, business' violations of labor laws have increased exponentially. A new union-busting consulting industry has flourished.

Despite all these setbacks, the labor movement remains the nation's most potent force for progressive change. In recent years, a few unions have become more feisty and effective. For example, in Los Angeles unions have used innovative and aggressive strategies not only to unionize workers, but also to build effective community relationships that connect struggles in the workplace to broader social issues, such as housing, the environment and immigrant rights. Thoughtful union leaders and rank and file members have built coalitions with churches, college students, environmentalists and affordable housing advocates that link these struggles for justice. Hotel and hospital workers, janitors, nurses, and security guards have used these new relationships to gain support for organizing drives.

It's do-or-die time for the American labor movement. In the next decade or two, unions will either make a comeback or become marginal players in American society and politics. If labor stumbles towards irrelevance, our overall society will become nastier, more unequal and individualistic than it already is. It's not a happy prospect.

The weakness of the American labor movement -- compared to its counterparts in other affluent, democratic societies -- accounts for many troublesome aspects of our society. The United States has the widest gap between rich and poor among democratic nations. It also has the highest poverty rate; 13 percent of all Americans, more than 37 million people, live below poverty. The pay gap between men and women is wider in the United States than in other affluent countries. We are the only democratic society without universal health insurance; 47 million Americans lack even basic coverage. We spend less on job training, child care, and affordable housing, and more on prisons, than these other nations. Americans work longer hours, get fewer paid vacation days, and have fewer rights on the job than workers elsewhere. Our environmental and workplace safety laws are weak and poorly enforced.

Political scientists argue that the decline of union membership in recent decades has contributed to the fall-off in voter turnout, because unions were traditionally the most effective vehicle for mobilizing low-income and worker class voters. When labor unions educate and mobilize their members, they are very effective.

Organized labor still has a significant capacity to marshal resources -- both money and members -- to influence the outcome of elections. Union members are more likely to vote, more likely to vote for Democrats, and more likely to volunteer for campaigns than people with similar demographic and job characteristics who are not unionized. In the November 2004 presidential election, union members represented 12 percent of all workers, but union households represented 24 percent of all voters. Despite John Kerry's tepid campaign and upper-crust demeanor, union members gave him 61 percent of their votes over George W. Bush. In the battleground states, where unions focused their turnout efforts, they did even better. In Ohio, for example, union members favored Kerry by a 67 percent to 31 percent margin.

When voters' loyalties were divided between their economic interests and other concerns, however, union membership was a crucial determinant of their votes. For example, gun owners favored Bush by a 63 to 36 percent margin, but union members who own guns supported Kerry 55 percent to 43 percent, according to an AFL-CIO survey. Bush carried all weekly church-goers by a 61 to 39 percent margin, but Kerry won among union members who attend church weekly by a 55 to 43 percent split.

Among white males, a group that Democrats have had difficulty attracting in recent presidential elections, Bush won by a 62 percent to 37 percent margin. But again, Kerry carried white males who were union members by a 59 percent to 38 percent difference. Bush won among white women by 55 percent to 44 percent, but Kerry won white women union members by 67 percent to 32 percent.

Had union membership reached even 15 percent of the work force, Kerry would have won by a significant margin.

In this climate, union leaders and their liberal allies are making a new effort to reform the nation's outdated and one-sided labor laws. On March 1, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the EFCA in a 241-185 vote. House members who supported the bill stood up to heavy opposition by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which launched a costly barrage of radio ads in 51 House districts. Two Southern Democrats -- Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma and Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi --voted against the bill.

Across the country, business leaders, the gun lobby, the religious right, and their Republican allies in Congress understand that a resuscitated labor movement would be an effective counterweight to their political influence. That is why they are on the warpath against the EFCA. President Bush has pledge to veto the bill if it passes the Senate and reaches his desk.

All the major Democratic candidates for president support the EFCA. The labor movement is likely to make support for the EFCA a litmus test for targeting its endorsement, money and ground troops to candidates running for House and Senate in 2008, particularly those in swing districts and states, where Republican incumbents are vulnerable to defeat. If labor's liberal allies (such as the Sierra Club, NOW, ACORN, and NAACP) do the same -- and if Democrats gain more seats in both houses of Congress after the 2008 election -- the EFCA has a good chance of passing. A Democrat in the White House will guarantee its victory. But even a Republican president could face a veto override.

America is now closer than it has been in decades to having labor laws that truly protect workers' freedom to make their own choices about union representation without management interference. If Congress can pass a veto-proof EFCA, it would do more than increase union membership, it could lead to a rebirth of progressive politics in America that would quickly echo across the United States for decades. All liberals and progressives should view the battle over the EFCA as a fight for their own future as well.

Labor Warrior

Last Wednesday night, hundreds of janitors and security officers who work in downtown L.A. office buildings gathered outside one of those office towers for a candlelight vigil for Miguel Contreras, the 52-year-old labor leader who championed their cause and who died unexpectedly on May 6. The workers used their 10:15 p.m. "lunch" break to organize the memorial, one of several that took place that evening throughout the L.A. area.

Contreras, the secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, had orchestrated widespread support for the janitors from unions as well as politicians and clergy during a bitter three-week strike in 2000. The strike -- which helped put a human face on the plight of L.A.'s immigrant low-wage workforce -- produced victory for the janitors, who won family health care, decent pay, and paid vacations.

Around the country, membership in labor unions is shrinking, but in Los Angeles it has been increasing for almost a decade, as has labor's political clout. This is due in large measure to Contreras' organizing savvy.

The son of farm workers who began working in the fields of central California at age 5, Contreras became an organizer for the United Farm Workers, and then with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, before joining the L.A. County Fed as its political director. He moved into the top job in 1996.

Under Contreras' leadership, the L.A. area labor movement made enormous progress in three areas. First, union membership has grown, particularly in sectors dominated by immigrants who work as janitors, garment workers, health care aides, maids and cooks in the tourism industry, and laundry workers. Second, the number of labor-friendly politicians in City Hall, the state legislature, and California's congressional delegation has dramatically increased. Third, the municipal and county governments have adopted more municipal public policies that improve the lives of working families than any other area.

In the labor movement, Central Labor Councils (umbrella organizations of unions structured on city or county jurisdictions) are generally not powerful bodies. But Contreras, through force of personality and political acumen, built the Los Angeles Federation into a model for the country. While most labor councils are content to provide campaign donations and a few volunteers to candidates running for office, Contreras went from courting politicians to picking them. Mayoral candidate and City Council member Antonio Villaraigosa, State Sen. Gil Cedillo, Speaker of the California Assembly Fabian Nunez and Los Angeles City Council member Martin Ludlow were all labor officials before building political careers with Contreras' backing. Contreras looked into labor's own ranks for "warriors" who, when a political argument turned into a fight, wouldn't immediately start talking about a "middle road compromise."

Perhaps the most dramatic example of organized labor's new political self-confidence occurred in 2000, when Contreras helped orchestrate the defeat of long-time incumbent Democratic Congressman Martin Martinez by Hilda Solis, a progressive Democratic state legislator who had made a name for herself as a vocal and effective feminist, environmental advocate and labor ally. Martinez, who represented a mostly Latino and Asian district in the working-class suburbs outside L.A., had angered union leaders and progressives when he offered to vote for the Clinton administration's fast-track trade-negotiating authority in return for White House support for a freeway extension in his district. He also alienated pro-choice voters by voting for a ban on late-term abortions. Solis won the support of EMILY's list and the Sierra Club but it was the all-out effort of the L.A. County Fed in the Democratic primary that had the biggest impact. Solis's 62-to-29 percent victory was one of a precious few instances in modern political history in which a progressive Democrat ousted a centrist incumbent.

Contreras' crucial insight was realizing that while previous labor leaders had mastered the "inside game" of politics, the future of the labor movement in Los Angeles would depend upon rebuilding local unions from the ground up. That meant he had to lead a declining labor movement "backwards," towards an organizing culture that had been all but lost or forgotten. It entailed reaching out to the new immigrant labor force and sending the message loud and clear that they were welcome in L.A.'s unions. It also meant that the windows of democracy had to be rattled a bit; that in order for working people to regain the ground they had lost they had to be in the streets, on voter's doorsteps, and inside churches and synagogues.

Like his mentor Cesar Chavez, and like Martin Luther King, Jr., Contreras knew that the church was a place where labor's message of an earthly redemption might resonate. In that sense, his political and spiritual centers were in the same place. He built a strong relationship with progressive clergy of all faiths, who were frequently found at rallies and on picket lines with striking janitors and grocery workers.

He strengthened labor's ties with L.A.'s African-American community, many of whom felt that surging Latino influence was at their expense. Last year, the L.A. County Fed helped Karen Bass, a veteran community organizer in South Los Angeles, win a seat in the state Assembly. Contreras was also working closely with SEIU to unionize security guards, a mostly black workforce employed in many of the same buildings with the newly-unionized Latino janitors.

Contreras also rebuilt labor's relationship with community organizations throughout Los Angeles. He supported affordable housing advocates in their successful fight to establish a municipal housing trust fund in the city. Immigrant rights advocates were welcome in the federation's offices. Along with Maria Elena Durazo, president of the local hotel workers union (and Contreras' wife), he played a key role in persuading the national AFL-CIO to reverse its stance on immigrants by endorsing amnesty for undocumented workers. He even reached out to the environmental community which labor had historically seen as hostile rather than a potential ally.

One of the most lasting legacies is the creation and support of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LANNE), an organization set up to fight for living wage laws (which L.A. enacted in 1997), an anti-sweatshop law (adopted last year), and a "community benefits" criteria for business development in Los Angeles. Working with LANNE and other community organizations, Contreras shepherded so called "big box" legislation through the Los Angeles City Council. Now, if corporations like Wal-Mart want to do business in Los Angeles, they will be obligated to prove that they will not damage the community economically, socially and environmentally. Last year, union and community activists kept low-wage Wal-Mart out of adjacent Inglewood, a predominantly African-American and Latino city, and are working to do the same in suburban Rosemead.

All of the articles about his life written during the past week have emphasized his keen understanding of political power. But despite his skills in that arena, Contreras distrusted the cozy cloying dynamics of the inside political game -- the deals struck over lunch and the nod and wink of the pay-to-play political culture. He understood that the inside game was relatively easy but that rebuilding strong unions was the real historical challenge.

The unions in the County Federation of Labor are about 800,000 strong, a union density that is significantly higher than the national figure of 12 percent. Leaders who can see the future and act to create it are rare, particularly in the labor movement. The ongoing debates that threaten to split the AFL-CIO are taking place because unions in the rest of the country have so far failed to duplicate what Contreras helped accomplish in Los Angeles. History offers no guarantees, only opportunities. And there is no guarantee that the labor movement will survive. If it doesn't, it won't be because Contreras didn't warn the country's labor leaders -- and more importantly, went about doing something to change the situation.

A Moral Minimum Wage

In two so-called "red" states that favored George W. Bush on November 2, voters also overwhelmingly approved ballot measures to raise the minimum wage by one dollar, to $6.15 an hour. In Florida, where Bush beat John Kerry by 381,000 votes, voters favored the minimum wage increase by 3.1 million votes (a lopsided 71.3 percent to 28.7 percent), despite the opposition of the state's business community and Governor Jeb Bush. In Nevada, Bush narrowly beat Kerry by 21,500 votes, but voters backed the wage boost by 293,328 votes (68.3 percent to 31.6 percent).

The minimum-wage measures won in every county in both states. In conservative Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in the Florida Panhandle, where military bases and retired military veterans dominate the political culture, more than two-thirds of voters supported the wage boost, about the same margins they gave Bush. In Nevada's richest county, Douglas, near the Lake Tahoe resort area, where Bush garnered 63.5 percent of the vote, 61.5 percent of voters supported raising the minimum wage.

Obviously, many Floridians and Nevadans, including many middle-class voters (and certainly some evangelicals), who voted for Bush also voted to raise the minimum wage. Both states also saw a significant increase in turnout among low-income and working-class voters, thanks to grassroots voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns by coalitions of progressive groups.

"The minimum-wage campaign brought a lot of people out to vote who otherwise might have stayed home," explained Brian Kettenring, an organizer for ACORN, a community group that spearheaded the Florida effort. "Most of those new voters probably voted for Kerry, which narrowed Bush's margin. But we also found that lots of swing voters, who weren't sure how they were going to vote for President, enthusiastically supported raising the minimum wage."

But, although Democrats and their allies mobilized an unprecedented get-out-the-vote operation, they were outsmarted and out-hustled by Republicans. Kettenring believes that Kerry might have taken more votes away from Bush in Florida if he had embraced the minimum-wage campaign, as many labor and progressive activists urged him to do. But he inexplicably ignored the issue. It is imperative that Democrats and progressives start a nationwide debate that frames economic justice as a moral issue. Not only would this be the right thing to do. It would seem to be a winning electoral issue.

Bob Fulkerson, director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, says that the extensive door-to-door field operations on behalf of the minimum-wage increase by unions, community groups and environmental organizations increased voter turnout in target districts, accounting not only for the wage-increase victory but also for the Democrats' picking up three seats in the State Assembly and one seat in the State Senate. "The issue tugged at people's heartstrings," Fulkerson said. "They saw it as a basic matter of fairness."

Democrats and progressives are once again going through a wrenching self-evaluation about why they lost the White House again and how they can build a majority coalition to win it back. The minimum-wage victories in Florida and Nevada are a political neon sign blinking brightly. In January, when Bush is sworn in for a second term, the array of people and groups who worked to elect John Kerry (unions, environmentalists, community-organizing networks, civil rights groups, disaffected millionaires and religious organizations) should announce a nationwide moral crusade to raise the national minimum wage to the official poverty level – $9.50 an hour – which translates to $19,000 a year.

It has already become conventional wisdom that President Bush won a second term by defending the "moral" values derived from traditional religious teachings. According to a postelection analysis written by veteran pollster Stan Greenberg and political consultant James Carville, "downscale voters" (rural, blue-collar and non-college educated) responded to a conservative "cultural surge" toward the end of the election and tilted toward Bush.

But isn't it a moral issue when more than 36 million Americans live in poverty and more than 40 million people in the wealthiest county in the world lack health insurance? Many major religious denominations support raising the minimum wage. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops says that Catholic social teaching regards work as a reflection of our human dignity, and that receiving poverty wages is an affront to individual self-respect.

And isn't it immoral that Congress – which has given itself a cost-of-living pay raise for the past five years in a row – has allowed the federal minimum wage to lose its purchasing power, so that minimum-wage workers today are worse off now than they have been in decades? At its peak in 1968, the minimum wage was worth the equivalent of almost $7 an hour today. That was also the last year that the minimum wage was above the nation's poverty line. The effect of the last increase in the federal minimum wage, to $5.15 in 1997, has been completely eroded by inflation. That figure (which equals $10,700 a year) is now less than one-third of the average hourly wage of American workers, the lowest level since 1949. If the federal minimum wage were increased to just $7 an hour, at least 7.4 million workers would receive a wage boost. If the minimum wage were pegged at $9.50, millions more would be lifted out of poverty. The largest group of beneficiaries would be children, whose parents would have more money for rent, food, clothing and other basic necessities.

Business leaders still trot out economists to claim that raising the minimum wage will destroy jobs and hurt small businesses. But the evidence, based on studies of the effects of past increases in both the federal and state minimum-wage levels (twelve states have minimum wages higher than the federal level), shows otherwise. Because the working poor spend everything they earn, every penny of a minimum-wage increase goes back into the economy, increasing consumer demand and adding at least as many jobs as are lost. Most employers actually gain, absorbing the increase through decreased absenteeism, lower recruiting and training costs, higher productivity and increased worker morale.

The Democrats should give right-wing Republicans a taste of their own tactics. In a mere two years, Congressional elections will be held nationwide and a third of US senators will be up for election. Democrats and progressives could put pressure on Republican members of Congress, legislators and statewide officials who, as writer Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?," suggests, "talk Jesus" when they're running for election but "walk corporate" once they're in office.

Let's put President Bush and his Congressional allies, who gave the richest Americans a huge tax break, in the position of explaining that a nurse's aide with two kids can raise a family on $5.15/hour or that a worker in a poultry plant doesn't deserve a wage boost.

In addition to a national campaign targeted directly at Congress, ACORN and its labor allies are talking about mounting grassroots initiatives to boost the minimum wage in several key states in 2006 where Republican members of Congress, senators and state legislators are politically vulnerable. The strategy is designed to increase turnout among poor and working-class voters and to provide Democratic candidates with a clear economic justice issue. By doing so, they might also reach some of the God-fearing, church-going white Protestant males who live barely above the poverty line but give their votes to Republicans.

Those who insist on pointing out the widening economic divide in the United States are invariably accused by conservatives of fomenting "class warfare." Well, perhaps a bit of class warfare is just what's needed. There are thousands of new progressive activists who have emerged from this presidential election ready for the next battle. Engaging in a vigorous fight to raise our meager minimum wage is clearly the morally right thing to do. But it may also be the politically astute thing for Democrats to do.

Lessons from the Picket Line

Editor's Note: A version of this commentary ran in the L.A. Times on March 3.

The 60,000 grocery workers who went on strike almost five months ago have reluctantly ratified a contract that most consider a setback in terms of their wages and benefits. In Los Angeles and around the country, the labor movement and its allies hoped the strike would be settled on the union's terms -- without significant givebacks. Instead, employees will now shoulder increased costs for health care benefits and a "two-tier" wage system will bring new hires in at dramatically reduced levels.

United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members and others in the labor community are asking themselves whether this result was inevitable -- the inexorable logic of economic forces over which neither the grocery chains nor the union had control -- or were there strategic missteps that could have been avoided. In other words, had the UFCW done things differently, could they have won the strike?

The answer is important because unions throughout the country will be looking at the strike and drawing lessons from it. The grocery chains are feeling their oats from this contract settlement. They have other union contract negotiations coming up around the country, including in northern California in September. They, and the business community in general, hope that the recent settlement scares the hell out of other unions. They hope that unions throughout the country accept that "givebacks" are now unavoidable. Will the grocery chains' victory intimidate other unions from using the strike as a strategic tool? Will it discourage workers in non-union workplaces from joining unions? What should they learn?

Heading into the conflict last fall, the three giant supermarket chains had most of the advantages. The Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs, is the nation's eighteenth-largest company, with revenues of more than $51 billion. Albertson's, Inc. based in Idaho, ranks thirty-fifth, with revenues of $36 billion. Safeway, which owns Vons and Pavilions, and is based in Pleasanton, California, ranks forty-first, with revenues of $32 billion. These chains understood that while the UFCW is a national organization with over a million members, the main battlefield would be with the seven independent and often quarrelsome union locals in Southern California. The union is highly decentralized. Dozens of distinct locals around the country bargain separate contracts many with different contract expiration dates, salary and benefits levels and workplace rules.

Throughout southern California, the public was obviously very sympathetic with the strikers. The chains lost about $2 billion of business as consumers shifted to less convenient stores. Supporters joined picket lines at stores throughout the region. But the focus on Southern California region was inadequate. In a classic divide and conquer strategy, the stores calculated well in advance that they could take billions of dollars in losses in their Southern California stores but cushion their losses by operating unimpeded throughout the rest of the country. The three chains have a total of 6530 stores nationwide, while workers in only 860 stores in Southern California were on strike. The corporate chains convinced most institutional investors that they could amortize any losses over a period of years if they could beat down their labor costs significantly nationwide by starting in California. The grocery chains knew that the UFCW had a limited strike fund. Employees need to work or risk losing their homes, their health insurance and their kids' college tuition.

There is a reason why the United Auto Workers negotiate a national contract that covers all locals and the three major automobile manufacturers under one agreement. It keeps the employer from playing one small local off against another, utilizing givebacks from one group to pressure the same from another.

The Hotel and Restaurant Employees unions, which also negotiates contracts with major hotel chains on a local basis, is currently designing a national strategy to align their local contracts with other large city contracts throughout the country.

Historically, unions have won major strikes through grass roots solidarity, organizational preparation and the astute cultivation of community and political support. The UFCW's campaign should have been nationwide from the start. Through national action such as boycotts, picketing of stores throughout the country, and the early involvement of the AFL-CIO, the union could have demonstrated early on that they could affect the employers beyond Southern California.

When the United Farm Workers were attempting to organize in the California grape picking industry beginning in the 1960s, their boycott of Gallo wine engaged virtually every community in the nation. Millions of shoppers started making the connection between their consumer choices and the conditions of workers in the California grape fields.

In the recent grocery strike, however, it wasn't until three months into the strike that the national AFL-CIO was brought in to galvanize support, but little was done to mobilize allies in cities across the country. Even in California, the state AFL-CIO initiated a statewide boycott only a few weeks ago.

The Southern California grocery workers union hadn't resorted to the strike weapon since 1978. It had negotiated good contracts, lifting baggers and clerks into the middle class, in the context of labor-management cooperation. But in recent years, the context had changed. Like much of corporate America, the chains' top executives focused more closely on profits and dividends. In addition, they faced escalating health insurance costs and threats to their market share from non-union Wal-Marts. Union leaders warned members that the approaching contract negotiations would be tougher than previous years, but did not develop a comprehensive strike strategy to counter the chains' new intransigence.

To win a strike, unions need to communicate with and mobilize their allies -- other unions, consumers, community groups, religious congregations and college students, among them. Four years ago, when the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was preparing for its "justice for janitors" strike in LA, it spent a great deal of time and energy a year before the strike cultivating supporters, explaining their position to community groups and clergy, and making sure that elected officials were briefed on the critical demands they were pushing for. When the strike eventually came, there were thousands of supporters ready to march, speak to the media, and lobby their elected leaders to put pressure on the building owners to bargain fairly. This transformed the janitor's strike into a crusade rather than a bureaucratic ritual between labor and management.

Many local clergy, community groups and other unions participated in rallies and prayer vigils. Some even joined UFCW members in civil disobedience. Several presidential candidates -- Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, and, last year, John Kerry -- joined workers on picket lines. From the get-go, however, the grocery workers' crusade should have included marches down Wilshire and Cesar Chavez Boulevards, rallies with celebrities, and free concerts with sympathetic entertainers like Bonnie Raitt, Ani DeFranco, and Willie Nelson to draw public attention to the cause.

Unions, environmental groups, and community organizations often use tactics to embarrass key corporate decision-makers who refuse act responsibly (such as paying workers a living wage) in order to isolate them from lenders and stockholders, and to bring pressure on key company board members from their social, civic, and business friends. Many of these board members share overlapping membership on boards of other companies, charities, foundations and other do-gooder groups that help to soften their public image as "corporate citizens."

A well thought out "corporate campaign" would have reinforced what the public already understands --- that Vons, for example, is not a faceless corporation but is run by real people who have some choices about how they treat their workers. It was three months into the strike before public attention was directed towards Steve Burd, Vons CEO, who was quarterbacking the negotiations for the three chains. Three weeks ago a group of clergy marched on his house -- a tactic used to publicly embarrass key targets that refuse to be accountable for their actions. The union could have focused on other potential targets -- such as Peter Magowan, grandson of Safeway's founder, Safeway board member, and owner of the San Francisco Giants. In a strong union town like San Francisco, how would Magowan have reacted to a "Giants Fans for Social Justice" group, for instance, who threatened to picket Giants games unless he pressured Burd to ease his more extreme demands?

It would be tragic if America's working people, and its union leaders, learn the wrong lesson from the recent UFCW experience -- that corporate might always beats union right, that money always prevails over social justice.

The UFCW rank and file who stood on strike for over four months showed a tenacity and devotion to their organization that is rare in today's America. After seven or eight weeks it was clear to the strikers that they would be unlikely to gain back in a new contract what they had lost in wages while not working. That they stayed strong was not a testament to greed, as some cynical commentators have suggested, but a positive sign that there are still people who are willing to sacrifice for others that they don't even know. One of the major criticisms of the new contract by strikers returning to work is the two-tier system that will apply to new hires that will start at a lower base pay than they will. The strikers walked out for months partly to protect people who have not even been hired yet. It's not a bad example to set for children.

It remains to be seen what lessons the labor movement and its supporters learn from the Southern California labor struggle.

One lesson is that the loyalty of local union members and the sympathy of the majority of local consumers, while impressive, wasn't enough to win the strike. The union could not beat huge national corporations without expanding the war to a national battleground.

A second lesson is that rising health care costs should be the top domestic priority not only for unions and their allies but also for businesses that provide insurance. Over 40 million Americans lack health insurance. A growing number of employers are dismantling their health insurance or dramatically increasing their employees' premiums and co-payments. Employers, who do offer insurance, like the three grocery chains, have an incentive to reduce their costs by joining the battle for nationwide universal health insurance. This will obviously be an important issue in the current presidential contest.

The third lessons is that while the grocery workers strike was abut health benefits and wages, it was also about something much larger: the Wal-Marting of America. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer with 1.2 million workers, and its biggest retailer, with 1,397 supercenters, symbolizes the "low road" corporate strategy that relies on part-time workers, pays low wages without benefits, and outsources as much production as possible to sweatshops in Asia and Latin America. It currently accounts for 19 percent of the nation's grocery sales and is now attempting to make inroads in Los Angeles and other urban areas. The grocery chains argued that they could not compete with Wal-Marts low prices and low labor costs.

Although the chains could certainly have afforded to meet the UFCW's reasonable contract demands, their efforts to mimic the low-road approach will continue until Wal-Mart is unionized. The UFCW has attempted to organize Wal-Mart workers and met with stiff resistance. Wal-Mart has engaged in outrageous union-busting tactics, including firing workers who support union drives and other major violations of federal labor law. The battle to unionize Wal-Mart should be the AFL-CIO's top priority for the next decade. It will require enormous resources and all the allies that the labor movement can muster. This is the biggest challenge that the labor movement has faced since the 1930s.

Back then, the fledgling industrial unions recognized that organizing General Motors, at the time the nation's largest employer, was key to making the labor movement an important political force. The entire labor movement backed the United Auto Workers' organizing drive, including the famous Flint "sit-down" strike in 1937. The UAW victory prompted U.S. Steel, another corporate giant, to sign a contract with the young steelworkers union. During the following 25 years, the labor movement's membership and political clout grew, lifting millions of workers out of poverty and making America a middle-class society.

The auto and steel industries dominated the American economy back then the way Wal-Mart does now. Wal-Mart is pulling down America's middle-class standard of living and signaling other companies, whether unionized or not, that it's time to go to war against working families.

In the U.S., any union battle -- from organizing drives to contract negotiations -- is an uphill fight. More than any other democratic nation, America's labor laws are biased toward management and against workers. That's why only 11% of the workforce are union members, despite surveys that show that a majority of workers could join a union if they didn't fear reprisals from employers, including getting fired. Reforming and updating the nation's labor laws is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Despite the UFCW recent setback, the grocery workers strike helped put a human face on the major issues facing America's working families -- declining wages, lack of adequate health insurance, the export of jobs to overseas sweatshops, and the uneven playing field created by one-sided labor laws.

The central lesson of the strike is that to compete with the overwhelming power of corporate America, the labor movement needs to be bolder. The future of America as a middle-class nation depends on it.

Kelly Candaele is a trustee of the Los Angeles Community College District. Peter Dreier is Dr. E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and Director of the Urban & Environmental Program at Occidental College.
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