Labor protects friends, publishes enemies

When I was growing up, the head of my mother’s teachers’ union, Albert Shanker, was a deity. It was that simple. She worshiped the man. In her mind, he could do no wrong and he was truly fair and balanced. She believed that he had delivered all kinds of benefits and protections for teachers. To this day, New York’s teachers are well represented in Albany and in Washington.

There are so many major achievements that the unions are largely responsible for, like weekends off for most American workers, that anyone studying the history of this country can’t possibly ignore their contributions to our well-being as a society and as individuals. Almost every time there is a fight over a progressive social issue in this country, the unions have been there. When Pete Seeger sang Woody Guthrie’s “Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union,” he was talking about an idea. If individuals band together, they can accomplish a great deal.

On the other hand, organized labor in this country has major problems. Even though most people believe that the unions do a pretty good job for their members, most people also have big questions about organized labor’s leadership. These include often unfair stereotypical images of big fat union leaders with cigars in their mouths and organized crime connections, like the old Teamsters union.

These images are not easily dismissed. That’s why there have been recent attempts by unions to change labor law. They wish to see the old, long period of secret organizing elections preceded by relatively long periods of pre-election discussion and electioneering become a thing of the past. They want to see a new way of deciding who will have a union and who won’t become law. The unions say that employers, intent on keeping unions out, use unfair tactics, including firing those employees arguing for a union.

So the unions want a new plan, one that will be tremendously helpful to organizing efforts. They want something called a card check-off. This means that instead of a secret ballot type election, all that would be needed to form a union is for a particular number of workers to mark a card saying that they want to organize.

The business lobby says, “Nothing doing.” Some assert that peer pressure to sign the card will be so great that free choice will be eliminated. Interestingly, many in the labor movement argue the exact opposite. They say that the long period before actual union elections are called is a time for intimidation on the part of the unions. Knowing that so many Americans don’t like the “check-off” idea, the top union brass in Washington are signaling that they are in favor of compromise.

They say, “Forget about the check-off, we just want snap secret elections.” We are talking about five or ten days for the whole process. The secret election will be preserved but the elections would just come faster. There are those on both sides who don’t like this idea. Some union organizers think they will not have enough time to present the merits of their cases and some business people agree that this is serious stuff and needs to be mulled over.

Because the unions have been so generous to mostly Democratic politicians, some people believe this is a now or never proposition, since it is widely assumed that the Republicans will make some inroads into the present Democratic majority.

The problem is that the so- called “blue dog” Democratic senators in Washington have no stomach for this fight. They take a look at the polling numbers and think this is poison. On the other hand, many of them want the union money to counter the big business money that will go to their Republican opponents. The Democratic leadership in both houses knows that labor legend Samuel Gompers’ assertion that labor should protect its friends and punish its enemies will be invoked by modern unions with passion. The unions know that this is a now or never proposition.

Unions have a great deal to do to convince the American people that they would be better off if it were easier to unionize. Pressuring greedy politicians who want the money won’t be enough if the American people don’t sympathize with their plight. First and foremost for these politicians is keeping their offices.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 9/18/09

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