Here’s something to stick in the back of your head: The last time pro-union labor law reform passed Congress was in 1935.
This fact should serve as a reminder just how hard it is for organized labor to win legislation that helps it gain membership and power. It also serves to add perspective to labor’s current hopes for the Employee Free Choice Act.
Unions are counting on this bill to help them overcome employer resistance to organizing. The bill would allow workers to unionize simply by signing union authorization cards, thus avoiding weeks — and sometimes months — of closing threats, employer intimidation, possible firings and costly election campaigns.
Labor law reform has become necessary because the original labor law, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935, has been turned into its opposite with anti-union corporations using it to serve their own ends.
Organized labor has had a distinguished record of helping to pass legislation that brings a certain measure of social and economic justice and democracy to American capitalism. But since 1935 it has had virtually no success in passing laws that improve its chances of growing.
In 1935 when the NLRA passed, the Democratic Party dominated the U.S. Senate, 69-25, and House of Representatives, 322-103. This large Democratic majority reflected the mass movements of the 1930s for unemployment insurance, jobs, Social Security, veterans’ benefits and farm relief, as well as the right to organize.
As a result of last November’s election, Democrats have taken back power in Congress after 12 years, but they still don’t have the numbers needed to override a Bush veto.
Large Democratic majorities have not made much difference in the past, though, even with Democrats in the White House. In 1978 under President Jimmy Carter, unions pushed for labor law reform that would merely have given them equal time in any employer-held, captive audience meetings during an organizing drive.
Democrats controlled the Senate, 61-38, theoretically enough to stop any Republican filibuster but they couldn’t scrape up the 60 votes to actually shut one off.
The same thing happened under Clinton. This time, though, when the Strikers’ Bill of Rights came up for a vote in 1994 to prevent employers from hiring scabs to permanently replace workers on strike, Clinton took a trip to Europe.
It’s not certain whether today’s Democratic Party is any more committed to labor’s cause. A bigger concern, though, is that Americans don’t consider workers’ rights a top priority.
Sure, labor can point to the fact that more than half of American workers would form a union if given the chance; 65 percent of Americans approve of labor unions; 69 percent support EFCA and 94 percent say it’s wrong for employers to fire workers who support a union.
But despite those impressive numbers, EFCA doesn’t make America’s Top 16 list of important issues Congress should deal with.
There are two ways that labor law reform can crack this Top 16 list. The first is offered by SEIU organizer Steven Lerner, who recalled that the NLRA was only passed in response to large-scale strikes and organizing drives.
“Workers will get better laws not because that’s a good idea, but because the level of conflict is so disruptive that a rational system is better. Labor law won’t change unless there’s a demonstrated need,” he says.
Those who think unions can get labor law reform like Republicans get “earmarks” should consider what former UAW President Walter Reuther once said: “We have striven from the beginning to make our union a broad social movement. We have sought to become, not a narrow pressure group, but an integral part of our society — a movement that knows it can make progress only as the whole community progresses.”
Whether labor reform becomes law may ultimately depend on whether the larger community believes it will progress if labor progresses.
Reprinted with permission from the Metro Detroit Labor News.