This Week In Labor: September 29

Labor takes aim at key 2008 races

The AFL-CIO executive council has approved a political budget of more than $53 million to educate, mobilize and turn out voters this year and next. The resources will be spent entirely on grassroots mobilization through an ambitious, sophisticated political program.

The federation says it will activate and deploy more than 200,000 volunteers in 2008. Volunteers will reach out to members and neighbors by going door to door, making phone calls, talking to co-workers at their worksites and communicating online with union voters about the issues they’re concerned with: health care, retirement security, good jobs, economic equality, trade policy and the freedom to form and join unions.

The number of union voters the AFL-CIO will turn out is expected to increase sharply in 2008. Working America, a community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, plans to increase its membership from 1.6 million to 2.5 million by next summer. In 2006, labor’s massive union voter mobilization proved pivotal to shifting the balance of power in Congress. The AFL-CIO mobilized more than 13.6 million voters in 32 states.

In addition to electing a pro-worker president, the federation plans to help gain as many as six pro-worker seats in the Senate and add five in the House by focusing on specific districts.

Labor’s efforts are also expected to expand the ranks of worker-friendly state legislators and governors. The AFL-CIO has identified 23 priority states for these purposes in the 2008 elections.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin have been identified as “top tier” states. In Ohio alone, the AFL-CIO expects to bring in 1.4 million new pro-union voters. The union vote in Ohio in 2006, without these projected new voters, was already 28 percent of the total vote in that state.



Unions and lawmakers fight corporate bankruptcy dodge

Key congressional and union leaders announced Sept. 25 new legislation to change corporate bankruptcy laws to ensure that workers and retirees are not last in line, behind businesses and banks, if their employer files for bankruptcy.

The “Protecting Employees and Retirees in Business Bankruptcies Act of 2007” also makes it more difficult for businesses to use the bankruptcy process as a back-door way of gutting their workers’ wages and benefits.

The legislation was introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), assistant majority leader.

Workers, including airline pilots, steelworkers and others who have seen their health insurance evaporate or have had to take deep pay cuts when their employers filed for bankruptcy, participated in the press conference announcing the bill.

“Workers have been bearing more than their share of the pain when their companies file for bankruptcy,” said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. “This legislation restores balance to the bankruptcy process, moving workers up on the line of who gets what they’re owed, and it ensures that outrageous CEO packages don’t trump things like pensions, living wages and workers’ rights.”



House panel overturns NLRB rulings

By a 26-20 vote, 11 months after the rulings were issued, the Democratic-run House Education and Labor Committee voted Sept. 19 to overturn all of the National Labor Relations Board decisions that allow workers to be arbitrarily reclassified as supervisors.

If, as expected, Congress approves the measure, it would have to be signed into law by President Bush. No one expects him to do so.

The bill is important, however, because it not only bars companies from arbitrarily calling workers “supervisors,” but prevents them from using reclassification to harass and fire workers or to force them into participating in anti-union organizing campaigns. Labor fully expects the bill to become law after the 2008 elections.



Four senators go after ‘independent contractor’ loophole

Four U.S. senators have introduced a bill to kill the “independent contractor” loophole companies use to cheat workers out of overtime pay and to cheat the state and federal governments out of taxes.

Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and presidential hopeful Barack Obama are the co-sponsors. Their bill would close the tax code loophole firms now use to evade paying federal, Medicare and Social Security taxes for workers.

The bill is backed by both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win.



Supreme Court to tackle on-the-job issues this fall

Labor is getting out the word that when the Supreme Court goes into session Oct. 1 it will have before it two key questions that can impact workers’ rights in a major way.

The first question is a challenge by the American Federation of Government Employees to the Bush administration’s decision, in the name of “national security,” to strip 700,000 Defense Department workers of all bargaining rights and whistle-blower protections.

The second question is an attempt by the Bush administration to stop California from forcing companies to remain neutral during union organizing drives.

Four years ago, the Democratic-run California Legislature passed a law saying that any enterprise that got state money in contracts or grants could not use the funds to campaign against union organizing drives. The bill was signed into law by then-Gov. Gray Davis.

By going to the Supreme Court on this issue, Bush is, in effect, acting as a free lawyer for the Chamber of Commerce, which has been fighting the California law since it came into existence.



Labor welcomes first African American to top AFL-CIO post

The AFL-CIO executive council Sept. 21 unanimously elected Arlene Holt-Baker as the group’s executive vice president, making her the first African American ever to serve in one of the top three executive offices of the 12-million-member federation.

Holt-Baker fills the unexpired term of Linda Chavez-Thompson, retiring executive vice president.

One of seven children of a domestic worker and a laborer in Fort Worth, Texas, Holt-Baker got her first job in high school through the anti-poverty program launched in the 1960s. Working after school at the program’s designated minimum wage of $1.40 an hour, she earned higher hourly pay than her mother did working full time.

She was an organizer for AFSCME in the 1980s and 1990s, and fought for unionization of public sector workers in California. During those years she mobilized union workers in national, statewide, county and municipal elections.

In 2004 she led Voices for Working People, which registered thousands of people of color in under-registered communities.

In 2006 she became leader of the AFL-CIO’s Gulf Coast recovery effort.



A lesson learned about sticking together

Robert McEllrath, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU), wrote recently about the workers’ victory in the battle with Waste Management, the California company that locked out its workers and began an incredible effort to destroy their union only one day after their contract expired. Following is a small excerpt:

“My point is that there were plenty of chances for divisions to break out between the workers. It could have been between the lower-paid or higher-paid workers, between the men and the women, between different racial groups, between groups of folks who spoke different languages, or between all the different unions that were involved — the Teamsters, ILWU and Machinists. But in the end, everyone realized that sticking together was the only way to make progress.”



Cooling-off period at Farmer Joe’s

At a Sept. 19 rally in the Dimond neighborhood of Oakland, Calif., the United Food and Commercial Workers union announced it is accepting Mayor Ronald Dellums’ proposal for a cooling-off period in union leafleting and boycott activities at Farmer Joe’s organic market. The letter, also signed by Rep. Barbara Lee, Assemblymember Sandre Swanson and area City Councilwoman Jean Quan, urges the two sides to hold “a productive dialogue,” and calls on the market’s owners to meet with the elected officials to discuss the conflict.

The dispute over the rights of the market’s workers to organize a union began in August 2006.

Union officials say the main issue is the company’s refusal to enter into a card-check neutrality agreement to allow for union organizing. The union says it is ready to meet with the company and elected officials “at any mutually agreeable time or location.” Local 5 President Ron Lind said the union was suspending leafleting and boycott activities “as a sign of good faith,” and cautioned that should its overture be rejected, the union would revisit its options.

This Week in Labor is compiled by John Wojcik (jwojcik@pww.org). Marilyn Bechtel and Press Associates Inc. contributed.