Attack on labor board seen as attack on middle class

WASHINGTON - A cabal of the business community and congressional Republicans are mounting a concerted attack to literally destroy the National Labor Relations Board and workers' rights nationwide, a panel of pro-worker experts and two key lawmakers say.  And destroying it, they say, is part of a crusade to wreck the middle class.

As far as Senate Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is concerned, the plotters are not going to get away with it.  He has declared that he plans to kill any and all anti-NLRB bills the Republican-run House sends over to his panel and the Senate.

"The National Labor Relations Act is the bedrock fundamental underpinning of the middle class in this country," declared Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who led the losing fight recently in the GOP-run House against the Republicans' anti-NLRB bill. 

And Miller said the rest of the country realizes it.  "There may be a lot of workers who are not members of unions, but they know how they got their wages and benefits, through union activism and collective bargaining," he stated.

Harkin, Miller and the experts spoke at a Nov. 30 AFL-CIO symposium on workers rights and the NLRB.  When the forum, which drew a capacity crowd, was put together a month before, nobody had any idea how pertinent it would be.

It occurred the same day the House GOP passed legislation banning the board's plan to change union election rules.  Miller said the real goal of the GOP and business is to strip the board of all its enforcement powers against firms that break labor law.  The election rules bill passed on a virtual party-line vote, 235-188.

And that same day, Nov. 30, the NLRB itself approved, also on party lines, a resolution outlining changes it wants to make in union election processes - changes the panelists said would eliminate some of the legal stalling and obstructionism that employers now use to give themselves time to frustrate and defeat organizing drives.

The proposed changes prompted so much GOP outrage that the sole Republican on the board, Brian Hayes, threatened to quit, preventing the board from doing any business at all by depriving it of a quorum.  But he decided to remain.  His side lost, 2-1.

Still, all that put the developments into a larger context of the wide-ranging GOP-business war on the labor board and workers rights, the panelists said.  "This is a collective attack on the American worker," Miller declared.

"The threat has become more dangerous" to both workers' rights and the middle class, said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, opening the session.  "This is fundamental...This is a proposal fostered by the business community to end workers' rights," said Miller.  "They don't want workers to have those fundamental rights."

Miller said the war started on the state level, as GOP-run governors and legislatures - especially but not only in Wisconsin and Ohio - went after public workers' collective bargaining rights, using budget-cutting as a reason.  "But this is not about cutting budgets, it's about cutting rights," he reiterated.

Workers, private and public, realize that, panelists said, and they reject the GOP agenda.  When collective bargaining rights were put to a vote, in Ohio earlier this month, they noted, collective bargaining won in a landslide, 61 percent to 39 percent.

But now the war has moved to the federal level, with the GOP legislation to destroy all enforcement powers of the NLRB nationwide, the panelists said.

That's a big deal, said Harkin and the other panelists - three academics, AFL-CIO Organizing Director Elizabeth Bunn and Kimberly Freeman Brown of American Rights at Work.  Holding up a graphic tracing the decline in median incomes and the decline in unionization since 1967, Harkin noted how exactly they tracked each other.

"They have a clear ideology, and who benefits?  The top 1 percent, or actually the top one tenth of 1 percent," Bunn said about business.  "At the end of the day, this is about control." 

And, as for whether business or the GOP is the driving force behind the war on workers, Bunn stated they're both mixed together, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling letting companies spend unlimited amounts of money on politics.

The panel offered various ways to counter the GOP onslaught against the NLRB in particular and workers in general.  They stressed education of the wider electorate.  It should focus not just on past wins - such as raising the minimum wage or enacting job safety - but on teaching voters about present benefits of unionization and protection of the rights of all, even non-unionists, to join together to campaign for better conditions.

"We have to go on the offensive," several panelists said.  But they also admitted labor has an uphill war to win when discussing the rights of workers, union and non-union.  That's because the other side - business and the GOP - is better at rhetoric. 

"It's politically useful to scapegoat" unions and government workers, avoiding the rights workers fight for and the benefits the government programs bring, added David Madland of the Center for American Progress think tank.

One panelist, Texas law professor Julius Getman, gave as an example a prior GOP House-passed bill, barring the NLRB from using any money to pursue its case against Boeing for moving airplane production to anti-union South Carolina strictly to punish its Machinist workers in the Pacific Northwest for exercising their rights.

"They call this 'the heavy hand of government on the rights of capital,'" Getman said of the GOP.  "As we said in the Bronx when I was growing up, 'b---s---.'"

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