By Harry Kelber | January 26, 2007
The last of six articles
Our national leaders have no plan to rebuild the labor movement, nor are they interested in hearing anyone else’s plan. They’re marking time about organizing, waiting until April when the Democrats have promised to introduce The Employee Free Choice Act.
Top labor officials are counting on "Free Choice" to solve not only organizing problems, but also legislative ones. Listen: "The AFL-CIO union movement is working in many ways to restore good jobs, health care and retirement security‹but passing the Employee Free Choice Act is our top priority because we cannot create balance (?) for working people or rebuild the middle class unless workers generally have the freedom to form unions for a better life." (And if "Free Choice" doesn’t pass, does it mean that the AFL-CIO won’t be able to fight for working people?)
The bill, to be reintroduced in the new Congress, would compel employers to pay triple back wages to workers whom they fired or discriminated against, and they would be subject to civil fines of $20,000. Union leaders hope that, given the stiff penalties for violations of the labor law, employers will cease their harassing and intimidating practices.
Further, unions could be certified as bargaining agent if they obtained signed authorization cards ("card check") from a majority of employees. And finally, employers would be compelled to negotiate with the union under procedures that could end up in binding arbitration.
Assuming "Free Choice" legislation is approved by Congress, do AFL-CIO and Change to Win leaders expect that an enormous number of unorganized workers will jump at the improved chance to join a union? Will employers stop their resistance to unions? Won’t there still be the problem of organizing the millions of workers who say they want a union? How can that be done without a plan that involves masses of union members?
Union leaders have admitted that it is virtually impossible to organize major corporations, unless the current labor law is changed. They are banking heavily on passage of the "Free Choice" act. They can note that in the last session of Congress, the AFL-CIO was able to get 215 Representatives and 44 Senators to sponsor the pro-labor measure. They expect to increase the bill’s support significantly in this Democratic-led Congress.
But if "Free Choice" is to have any chance of passage this year or next, unions will have to put a lot more pressure on Congress than sending lawmakers a torrent of e-mails. This issue was not a high priority of the Democrats or the voters in the 2006 elections, and it has to be demonstrated that it is a top priority of union members. It could probably pass the House, but it would be difficult to get the 60 votes in the Senate to avoid a filibuster, And there is the near-certainty of a veto by President Bush, that would require a two-thirds vote in each branch of Congress to override the veto.
So what should labor do if Congress fails to enact "Free Choice"? Abandon all hope of rebuilding the labor movement? Let it slowly sink into impotence and irrelevance? Or call upon the millions of union members to volunteer their services in a massive, militant campaign to secure workers’ fundamental rights?
Retirees Would Be Valuable Troops in Army of Volunteers
There are countless thousands of retired union members who would be glad to enlist in an army of volunteer organizers. Many are former officials and activists with long and rich experience in labor affairs. Their leadership skills could be an important asset in whatever campaigns are undertaken. Moreover, they have lots of free time to devote to volunteer work — if they are called upon. Most retirees belong to "clubs" in their former local union, where they can be reached. Why shouldn’t we involve them as volunteer organizers?
I wrote this series of articles because I believe that unions can organize large corporations and regain their former numbers and bargaining strength — but only if they have a plan that can inspire and involve their members. I make no claim that my specific proposals are either the best or the only solutions to our organizing problems.
My main purpose was to generate a debate about organizing and the future of the labor movement to replace the silence and indecision of our national leaders. I welcome and respect criticism from whatever quarter. I await your comments.