GOP War on Workers

The Bush administration has its problems confronting foreign enemies. Dubya's invasion of Iraq turned that country into a magnet for anti-American jihadists and has ignited a civil war with US troops in the middle. In the face of Bush's bluster, North Korea just tested a nuclear weapon and Iran is working on its own nuke. But Bush has been much more effective in waging war against US workers.

Wall Street is doing well, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached a new record in October, but it's done little good for Main Street. The New York Times' Paul Krugman noted that economic growth since early 2000, when the Dow reached its previous peak, hasn't been exceptional. But after-tax corporate profits have more than doubled, as US industries are squeezing more productivity out of workers while keeping wages low and cutting back on other costs, such as health insurance.

The GOP has conducted a two-pronged attack on American labor: "free-trade" agreements allow industries to move factories overseas to take advantage of lower costs and less regulation. Then, as workers scramble for the service-sector jobs remaining in the US, regulatory officials have hamstrung the ability of unions to organize them.

Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer with 1.8 million "associates," has a reputation for paying low wages and being stingy on benefits. But corporate skinflints are looking for ways to cut costs further. An internal memo leaked to the Times expressed concern that workers were paid more in salary and benefits as their tenure increased. The memo suggested that the corporation hire more part-time workers, so they won't have to pay for health care.

Another leaked Wal-Mart memo called for wage caps, so that long-term employees won't get raises. Among other steps to keep workers from staying too long on the job, according to workers interviewed by the Times: in some stores managers have started to bar older employees with back or leg problems from sitting on stools.

Theoretically workers can form a union to protect their interests. But Wal-Mart is notoriously anti-union, shutting down its meat-cutting departments nationwide after a dozen butchers in Texas voted for a union. Wal-Mart closed a store in Quebec rather than recognize a union.

The National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935 as part of the New Deal, is supposed to bar employers from firing or intimidating workers who engage in union activities. But since the 1970s, as politics has moved to the right, employers have used the courts and bureaucracy to roll back union rights. Employers who illegally fired union sympathizers rarely faced serious consequences, particularly during Republican administrations.

Recently, the National Labor Relations Board voted 3-2 along party lines that millions of nurses have supervisory roles and therefore lose the right to form or be protected by unions.

The ruling in the Oakwood Healthcare Inc. case gives employers the opportunity to classify low-level employees with minor authority as "supervisors." Oakwood is one of three cases considered after the Supreme Court, in NLRB v. Kentucky River Community Care, opened the door to a redefinition of who is a supervisor.

With the new ruling, 40.6 million workers, or 28% of the workforce, will have no collective bargaining rights. They include 8.5 million independent contractors, 5.5 million employees of small businesses, 18.8 million managers and supervisors (including 17.2 million first-line supervisors), 532,000 domestic workers, 357,000 agricultural workers and over 6.9 million federal, state and local government employees. And millions of undocumented workers have no labor rights, either, since they can be fired at will by employers without penalty under a 2002 Supreme Court decision.

Bush's NLRB also has denied organizing rights to disabled workers, graduate teaching assistants, and many temporary workers.

"But beyond the statistics of who can't be organized, these kinds of exclusions means that other workers rights are also undermined," wrote labor lawyer Nathan Newman at NathanNewman.org. "The fact that independent contractors can't unionize means that many firms can contract out work to block or undermine unionization. Undocumented workers in the workplace can be threatened with deportation to break unions. And the new expansive definition of 'supervisor' means that more workers will be given nominal supervisory responsibilities to undermine their right to unionize -- and lock every union vote in endless delays as companies litigate who is and who is not a supervisor. Even if the workers 'win,' the election will probably be delayed long enough to kill the union drive."

Newman added that when large numbers of workers are declared to be supervisors it turns friends in the workplace into enemies, as supervisors are told to spy on their friends or lose their jobs. "Instead of a union being about workers challenging the power of top management, it is turned into an internal workplace civil war."

Democrats are promoting the Employee Free Choice Act, which would require employers to recognize a union after a majority of workers sign cards for union representation. It also would provide for mediation and arbitration of first-contract disputes, and authorize stronger penalties for violations of the law when workers seek to form a union.

Jeff Farmer, Teamsters organizing director, noted Oct. 9 at MyDD.com that Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack has taken the lead in getting the centrist Democratic Leadership Council to join the labor groups Change to Win and the AFL-CIO in support of the legislation, which is only three sponsors away from a majority in the House and has 42 sponsors in the Senate but has been bottled up by GOP leadership.

Big Business has eviscerated laws that are supposed to protect the right to form labor unions. "Companies now freely manipulate the system, terrorizing and firing workers who dare to stand up for themselves in their fight for a voice on the job and a stronger economic future for their families," Farmer noted.

The threats and intimidation take their toll. Employers are able to manipulate the government-supervised union recognition process and abuse their power to significantly influence the outcome of elections. In 91% of union recognition petitions filed with the NLRB, a majority of workers indicated they wanted a union before the process began. But unions were victorious in only 31% of those campaigns.

Farmer said unions are having some success by negotiating "card-check and neutrality agreements" with companies to circumvent the unfair NLRB election process. Companies agree to remain neutral, and if a majority of workers sign cards in support of the union, the employer agrees to recognize the union.

"But these successful efforts by the Teamsters and other unions are at risk of being derailed by Bush's henchmen on the NLRB, which has agreed to consider the anti-worker National Rights at Work case claiming 'card check and neutrality' agreements illegally deny workers of a secret ballot election," he said.

The union movement flourished and formed the foundation on which the US middle class was built after World War II. Republican appointees to the courts and Bush's NLRB are eating away at that foundation. Big corporations and their Republican enablers (along with a few opportunistic Democrats) are to blame, not illegal aliens, nor gays, nor secular humanists. If you've had enough of corporations exporting good manufacturing jobs and squeezing the benefits out of the service jobs that remain, vote Democratic Nov. 7. -- JMC

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2006

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