Worker rights are key to economic recovery, union leaders say

ORLANDO, Fla. – The economy cannot truly recover unless the United States moves out of “the dark ages” in the area of workers’ rights, the nation’s labor leaders say.

Union leaders gathered here for an AFL-CIO executive council meeting this week emphasized that point, as they also pressed for massive federal spending to create millions of jobs.

“We are dealing with a management class that is the worst ever in the history of capitalism,” Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, said. “No modern society on this planet has as small a percentage (7.2 percent) of its private industry workforce organized as we do. Management in this country is brutal. Even in apartheid South Africa, 10 percent were organized in the private sector.”

Cohen, who wears a second hat as chair of the AFL-CIO’s organizing committee, noted, “Today in countries all over the world, workers get a union when only 30 percent sign union cards. The Employee Free Choice Act standard of majority sign-up, which management spends millions of dollars to prevent, is actually a far tougher standard than the one required today in countries like South Africa and Peru.”

“This is an issue for not just the labor movement, but for our country as a whole,” he declared. “Germany has been hit with the same economic crisis that hit us, but the suffering you see there is far less than the suffering you see here.”

“The crucial difference,” Cohen said, “is the higher degree of workers’ rights in that country.”

“Yes, we need a second stimulus and yes we need to fix regulations, but we must move ahead on workers’ rights, particularly the right to collective bargaining, and that is why we are pushing so hard for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.”

“Unfortunately,” he said, “there is no current path for passage of the EFCA with the Republicans able to filibuster in the Senate.”

According to Cohen, however, that roadblock will not prevent the labor movement from continuing to push on several other fronts.

The first of these, he said, is the push to get President Obama to fill National Labor Relations Board vacancies during the congressional Easter Recess. The Republicans filibustered his appointment of Craig Becker, a labor attorney, to that board, but the president has the power to make recess appointments which would last until the end of the year. He refrained from making the NLRB appointments during the President’s Day recess in exchange for Republican votes for many of his other nominees to non-controversial posts.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who came to the executive council meeting here, was asked whether the president would make the appointments during the upcoming recess. Although she would give no commitment, she said she had spoken to the president about the matter and indicated that “labor will be pleased with the outcome on this issue.”

In addition to filling the NLRB posts, the second approach to advancing workers’ rights, Cohen said, is to press ahead on some “gigantic organizing drives.” These, he said, would result in 200,000 more union members. Among them are a drive under way by the American Federation of Government Employees at the Transportation Security Administration, efforts by the Machinists and Flight Attendants to organize workers at Delta, a successful push by the United Auto Workers at Foxwoods Casino and numerous campaigns to organize hotels and manufacturing outfits.

The third approach, Cohen said, is to push for passage of the Public Safety Workers Collective Bargaining Act, which would require states to allow public workers to form unions.

The fourth, he said, “is to link organizing to political work.” To that end the federation and its unions plan to spend millions of dollars in a primary election in the right-to-work state of Arkansas to defeat Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who they say has betrayed the labor movement. “We will support Bill Halter,” Cohen said, “because he believes in putting people back to work and he will stand up for the organizing rights of workers.”

In June, Elizabeth Bunn will move into the position of director of organizing for the AFL-CIO. She is currently secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers.

Bunn said her “main lesson over 12 years is that in this country in the private sector there is brutal, fierce unrelenting employer opposition to unionizing. We are not the ones promoting class warfare, they are.” She said she intends to help unions deal with companies that stall on union contracts even after workers win union recognition.

“Every organizing drive from the very beginning has to be a drive to get a first contract,” she said.

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John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik started as labor editor of the People's World in May, 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York. Along with being labor editor, Wojcik is a co-editor of