From wealth gap to voting rights, labor takes a stand

HOUSTON – From opposing “fast-track” trade treaty bargaining authority to restoring and expanding voting rights, the AFL-CIO Executive Council committed the labor movement to specific stands on a select group of high-profile issues.

The union leaders, meeting Feb. 18-19 in Houston, put those stands into council statements, urging lawmakers and other officials to enact programs and laws, or, in fast-track’s case, defeat a move to let the president bargain trade pacts behind closed doors, without worker rights, with no labor, congressional or citizen input and with no changes.

But its biggest resolution was a sweeping one aimed at everyone in the nation: The AFL-CIO declared that its prime goal would be to lessen economic inequality-the gap between the rich and the rest of us. And it demanded a “great national conversation” on the issue “that should not be diverted by tokenism or distractions.”

Other statements dealt with the Volkswagen workers’ fight to unionize, blasting tax incentives that encourage corporate outsourcing of jobs and for a pact with China that would protect actors’ and recording artists’ rights and royalties. Excerpts of key specific stands included:

  • Economic inequality: “The public understands there is something wrong with our economy when almost all (95 percent) of the income gains since the end of the Great Recession have gone to the wealthiest 1percent…Before we can tackle the structural causes of inequality, we have to understand what they are. Inequality did not just happen. It was not an accident or an act of God. It was the predictable result of decisions by people with power in America over the past generation. The key decision was to use the power of government to help corporate America push down wages by destroying workers’ bargaining power.

“Any serious effort to attack the structural causes of inequality must begin with restoring the individual and collective bargaining power of all workers. Wage and income stagnation is a problem affecting the 90 percent, not just the poorest people in America, though it is the poorest whose lives are most blighted by falling real wages.

“If we care about economic inequality, we have to raise wages and living standards across the board. It’s that simple. If we care about a healthy economy no longer plagued by financial booms and busts, we have to raise wages and living standards. If we care about a healthy society, with a sense that we are all in this together, we have to raise wages and living standards. Broad-based wage growth is the defining challenge of our time.”

That broad-based growth starts, but does not end, with raising the minimum wage. It includes raising the tipped minimum wage, enacting living wage and paid sick leave laws, aiding victims of wage theft and bringing farm workers under wage laws, the statement said.

Most importantly, the statement adds, “every worker should be allowed to bargain for better wages and better living standards.”

Raising wages requires that workers’ voices not be weakened, and that means defeating state-level legislative attacks on workers and our unions, such as right to work for less and paycheck deception.

“Raising wages requires a more effective labor movement,” the fed adds. It said that last year, the AFL-CIO decided to create “stronger and more durable bonds with our allies at the local, state, and national levels” and encourage progressives in both major parties. “Focusing on wages, quality jobs and a thriving middle class will help us achieve these goals,” the statement concludes.

  • Trade: The Obama administration is negotiating five trade treaties, with one, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with 11 other “Pacific Rim” nations the farthest along and the most harmful. Fast-track would let it jam all of them through Congress.

Fast-track is an undemocratic, unaccountable process used to shield agreements under negotiation from influence by the American public and to virtually ensure trade deals that displace jobs, suppress wages, shutter factories, devastate communities and decrease worker bargaining power-all while increasing corporate profits and corporate influence over our economy and other economies worldwide,” the council said. It “will increase rather than reduce income inequality.”

The statement said “the real culprits” for both fast-track and failed economic policies “are powerful corporations that seek to control the global economic agenda with the clear purpose of lowering wages and diminishing the economic security of working people. Too many politicians support that agenda, choosing capital over labor, property rights over human rights and tax cuts for the wealthiest over investment in our future.”

After 30 years of this tilt, “When you’re in the hole, it’s time to stop digging. It is time to chart a new course,” the fed said.

“The AFL-CIO is committed to being part of a growing, worldwide movement of labor unions and civil society pushing back against this corporate-rights trade model… We will continue our domestic work to oppose the outmoded fast-track policies enshrined in” pending legislation “and to hold elected officials accountable for creating trade policies that benefit families who work.”

• Voting rights: Blasting the U.S. Supreme Court for “ripping a hole in the Voting Rights Act,” the federation endorsed legislation to recreate “pre-clearance”-federal approval beforehand-of voting changes in four states with a history of racist voting discrimination: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia. Other states could be added later, as they fail to meet the measure’s new standards for non-discrimination.

But while the fed endorsed the bipartisan Voting Rights Act Amendments bill, it said the drafters did not go far enough. The AFL-CIO declared that so-called “Voter ID” laws-pushed through GOP-run state governments-should become immediate voting rights act violations.

Voter ID laws make it hard to register and vote, curb early and absentee voting, erect tough registration requirements, limit non-partisan voter registration drives and even let states limit polling places. They’re designed to throw women, minorities, students, the elderly and workers off the election rolls.

“Voter suppression laws could be challenged successfully without having to prove discriminatory intent in passing the laws. The legislation improves transparency about voting changes, requiring wide notice of voting changes made within 180 days of an election. The legislation continues and strengthens the federal observer program, critical to combating racial and language discrimination at the polls,” the resolution adds.

  • Increasing access to and quality of post-secondary education. The AFL-CIO called on the federal government to shift most college aid from loans back to grants, and demanded states restore cuts to colleges, especially community colleges. It also said that 70 percent of college faculty now lack tenure-adjuncts and research and teaching associates who must often teach two or three jobs to keep alive. That robs the instructors of job security and the students of classroom quality, the fed said. With a college education increasingly needed to get ahead, quality instruction is vital.

“Disinvestment and a lack of commitment to instruction has left a majority of college educators without the professional supports they need to provide the highest-quality education to their students. In short, students are paying more, whether out of pocket or through student loans, and receiving less,” the fed said.

  • No tax incentives for outsourcing. “Congress demands repeated sacrifice from working people,” the fed said. But people “want a system that rewards those who produce and employ here, not those who abandon America.

“That’s why the labor movement stands for a simple and clear standard: The tax laws must not in any way encourage investment in foreign countries rather than the United States. That means the offshore profits of U.S. corporations must be taxed at the same rate and at the same time as their domestic profits. There is no economic or political justification for giving corporations a tax incentive to shift jobs and income overseas.

Photo: AFL-CIO 2014 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference, San Antonio, Texas, January 20. Alan Pogue, photographer. AFL-CIO flickr.




Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.