Top AFL-CIO officials: “U.S. labor law must catch up”

WASHINGTON (PAI) – U.S. “labor law must catch up” to the modernized global economy through a rewrite and strengthening of the National Labor Relations Act and U.S. agreement to – and obedience to – international labor law standards, two top AFL-CIO officials say.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and federation General Counsel Craig Becker make that argument in their analysis, The Future of Work: Labor Law Must Catch Up, posted on the website of Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

Trumka and Becker – a former union general counsel and National Labor Relations Board member – trace the history of failed attempts to rewrite U.S. labor law, in 1977 and in 2009. Corporate lobbying and congressional Republican filibusters stopped both efforts.

They precede it by pointing out that a combination of business defiance of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, the global race to the bottom and increasing productivity has led to current low union density in the U.S., along with stagnant and declining wages and a shrinking middle class.

They did not mention, however, that the AFL-CIO is working on a draft rewrite of labor law that would be far stronger than the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which business and the GOP defeated in 2009.

Such a strong rewrite, however, would have little to no chance in the GOP-run 114th Congress. Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley all promise to push for comprehensive labor law reform should they win the White House in 2016. President Obama promised to sign EFCA if passed, but did not push it.

“American workers will continue to become more productive as the digital revolution advances. But United States labor law must be reconstructed to recognize changes in work and the employment relationship and to once again effectively permit workers to organize and designate representatives to bargain with their employers,” Becker and Trumka said.

“Otherwise, workers will not share the increased income generated by their productivity, ultimately threatening economic growth.

“Since the 1970s, as the number of union members has gradually declined, workers’ productivity has continued to increase, but wages have not gone up proportionally. As a result, workers’ share of income gains has fallen sharply. In fact, in the 15 years between 1997 and 2012, the top 1e percent received more than 70 percent of income growth while the share going to the bottom 90 percent fell.

“According to sources as diverse as the International Monetary Fund, Standard & Poor’s, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the resulting inequality is threatening economic growth,” Trumka and Becker say.

“Underlying these trends is the fact that the free market drives innovation, but also a relentless effort to reduce costs, including labor costs, and that one primary area of ‘innovation’ in the past half-century has been in avoiding the ‘cost’ of complying with law.

“Employers have escaped U.S. labor law by moving jobs across borders and by restructuring their relationship with the workers in order to claim that they no longer employ them.”

Efforts to change labor law have failed, “not because it (change) is not needed and not because a majority does not favor it, but because a minority has used undemocratic procedures to permit U.S. labor law to become outdated and, therefore, ineffective.”

Now corporations seize on the U.S. Constitution’s 1st amendment freedom of speech clause “as a sword” to argue “it interferes with their labor relations” and “as a shield” to protect unlimited corporate campaign contributions to politicians, who in turn kill reform, they add.

“This history also teaches us what government should do – modernize our labor laws to once again foster strong organizations of working people in order to restore balance in the economy and the polity,” Trumka and Becker conclude.

Photo: AFL-CIO Headquarters, Washington, D.C by Mattpopovich. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Commons, Wikipedia.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.