AFL-CIO backs legislation that would power up American working families
Esperanza Martinez, union member with United Teachers of Los Angeles, gestures while teachers and supporters march outside of Manzanita Community School in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 21. The AFL-CIO is pushing for legislation that would make it easier for workers to bargain collectively. | Jeff Chiu / AP

NEW ORLEANS—The AFL-CIO Executive Council is wasting no time at its March 12-14 meeting here, getting behind a list of bills that would radically increase worker power in America. Passage of a package of progressive bills is now likely in the newly-Democratic-controlled House, and the thinking here is that a change in 2020 of which party controls the White House and the Senate could result in some of those measures actually becoming law.

Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s Government Affairs Director, discussed some of the labor federation’s top legislative goals with People’s World as the council meeting opened here Tuesday.

High on labor’s list is “some version,” as he put it, of the Workers Freedom to Negotiate Act, a bill that has already been introduced into Congress.

What the federation is aiming for is a law that will make it much easier to organize a union and bargain with employers. As it stands now, workers who try to form a union often face harassment and loss of their jobs. Current law also allows employers not just to target organizers but to drag their feet and stall in the bargaining process after the union has been established.

The law Samuel is looking for, however, goes beyond just what happens at the individual workplace. “The new law would have to eliminate right to work (for less) everywhere in the country,” he said. The right-to-work laws in existence in many states force unions to represent even workers who choose not to join the union at a given workplace. Wages and benefits in right to work states are notoriously low.

“The version (of labor law reform) we want would make it a crime to retaliate against or fire workers for exercising their right to organize or have a voice on the job, and it would make misclassification of workers illegal,” Samuel said. As it stands now, employers get away with calling workers “independent contractors” in order to avoid paying them benefits and to avoid paying Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance. And “independent contractors” cannot unionize under federal labor law, either.

The law would also provide stiffer penalties for employers who violate any aspect of labor law.

One thing the Workers Freedom to Negotiate Act does not do is automatically require a company to recognize the union as soon as a majority of workers sign pledge cards designating the union as their representative. That was something the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which the labor movement was backing more than 10 years ago, would have done. The new version allows the NLRB to require that route if there is evidence of illegal action by the company.

Hopes were high that EFCA would pass in the early months of the first Obama administration when there were 60 Democratic votes in the Senate and a majority in the House. “It didn’t happen then for two reasons,” Samuel said. ”First the 60-vote situation in the Senate didn’t last long, and the big initial fight was for healthcare. Obama said he would get to the labor law reform when that was done, but health care was a longer fight than expected and by the time it was over the needed votes in the Senate no longer existed.”

Samuel said the federation is also fully behind HR-1, the sweeping measure in the House that would restore the Voting Rights Act, end political gerrymandering, and end secret corporate contributions that can be poured into political campaigns.

As Samuel was speaking about labor’s desire for a bill to protect the 700,000-800,000 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, also known as the Dreamers, the House on Tuesday introduced the Dream and Promise Act to protect Dreamers and eligible recipients of Temporary Protected Status. “We want to see a path to citizenship for them and for other immigrants,” Samuel said. And on the question of immigrants Samuel said what Trump is doing along the border with separation of families is “appalling.”

Regarding the new immigration bill, designated HR-6, the AFL-CIO announced Tuesday that it is launching a campaign to get union members across the country to call their representatives to support it.

Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s president, said essentially that passage of HR-6 is very much an issue of importance to all workers. “DACA has been vital in ensuring that hundreds of thousands of workers have rights on the job, including the right to fight for fair pay and safe working conditions,” he said.

Preserving it then, the AFL-CIO argues, is essential because when those workers lose their rights, everyone else at workplaces suffers.

Bill Samuel, AFL-CIO Government Affairs Director.

In addition to discussing what the AFL-CIO backs legislatively, Samuel spent some time dealing with what they oppose.

“We can’t support NAFTA in its current form,” said Samuel. “Protections for workers are better than they were before (under the old NAFTA) but the problem is that the new NAFTA does not set up mechanisms to enforce the protections. Another big problem is that the big pharmaceutical giants are free to do whatever they want. In its current form, it is a giveaway to them.”

On infrastructure, Samuel said the federation wants a real program but that what Trump had offered in this regard was “totally inadequate.”

“He calls for $200 billion in government funds when what we need is trillions. He wants private markets to make up the money when we know that those markets will never invest in mass transit and roads that they don’t think are profitable.”

The AFL-CIO, like many others, wants a massive infrastructure program that, while it can incorporate private funding, makes a huge public investment much larger than what Trump has proposed.

With all the reasons labor has to oppose Trump, and with its support of legislation the president clearly opposes, Samuel was asked whether the federation would support impeachment. “That’s not our focus,” he said. “We are about the issues, and that is where our fight is.”

“Are you holding back because many union members voted for Trump?” he was asked.

“Not as many union members voted for him as he would have you think,” Samuel said. “It was only three percent more than had voted for Romney.”


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.