The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 29, 2004

The presidential election: Labor's greatest challenge?

By The Building Tradesman

American unions are facing nothing less than what their top leaders describe as virtually a threat to their very existence. The leaders may be exaggerating – but not much. For there’s no disputing that the labor movement is facing a very serious threat and that the challenge of meeting it is as great – or greater — than any labor has had to meet during its long, challenge-filled history.

The threat comes in the person of George W. Bush, who’s already done severe
damage to unions and the working people they champion. Bush, the most virulently anti-labor president in modern history, is certain to inflict even worse damage if he’s re-elected in November .

“A second term Bush will slash and burn workers without ever having to worry
about another election,” says President Jim Spinosa of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. “Working people haven’t faced so grim a reality since the Great Depression of the 1930s.”

Understandably, the core message of Spinosa and other union leaders and
activists can be summed up in but four words: “Beat Bush, elect Kerry.”

For four months they’ve been waging the most extensive – and most expensive
– election campaign ever mounted by organized labor. Thousands of union staffers and volunteers, backed by more than $150 million in union political funds, have been working with the Democratic Party and other organizations to line up votes for John Kerry, with a stress on the so-called battleground states where he and President Bush have been running neck and neck.

Bush has spurred labor’s troops into unprecedented action – and given them
plenty of ammunition – by his extraordinary record of dealing one heavy blow after another to unions and working people throughout his tenure in the White House.

He’s done it through executive orders, through his appointees to regulatory
agencies and through his allies in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Using the excuse that unionization somehow threatens national security, Bush
has denied union rights to more than a quarter-million employees of agencies concerned with security. He’s cut back raises that were due other federal workers, while granting bonuses of up to $25,000 to several thousand political appointees, and is attempting to shift as many as 850,000 jobs to private non-union contractors.

He’s already rescinded the regulation that had limited the award of contracts to companies that repeatedly violate labor or environmental laws and has abolished or crippled programs designed to foster cooperation between contractors and unions.

Although the Labor Department’s legal mandate is to further the interests of
working people, employers are the main concern of Bush’s secretary of labor, Elaine Chao. She has drastically curtailed the development and enforcement of job safety and anti-discrimination regulations and the enforcement of the laws governing minimum wages, overtime pay, child labor and other worker protections. Despite continued heavy unemployment caused in part by Bush’s trade policies, Chao also has curtailed programs that train the jobless in skills they need to find new work.

Although slashing the funding for such programs, the secretary has sharply
increased funding for auditing and investigating unions. Chao is trying as well to impose regulations that would force unions to report their expenditures in great and seemingly unnecessary detail and make it difficult for them to finance political activities and even routine day-to-day operations.

Bush’s National Labor Relations Board and its staff also are quite employer-friendly. They’ve done almost nothing to carry out their legal obligation to block employers from interfering in union organizing drives – a chief cause of the steady decline in union membership.

Congress has done its bit by agreeing with Bush that the minimum wage should
remain at a pitifully inadequate $5.15 an hour and that unemployment benefits should not be extended to those who remain jobless after the basic 26-week payout period. At Bush’s urging, his congressional allies also repealed regulations enacted by the Clinton administration that required employers to protect workers from the repetitive motion injuries that hurt
or disable more than 12 million of them a year.

This is not to mention Congress’ granting huge tax cuts to Bush’s wealthy
friends at the expense of vital services and job creation badly needed by millions of the non-affluent, unionists and non-union members alike.

Union leaders cite John Kerry’s overwhelmingly pro-labor voting record in
the Senate as sure evidence that as president he would be as friendly to labor as he has promised to be. He’s pledged to restore and expand the protections for workers that Bush has undermined, if not destroyed, and to back most other major issues on labor’s agenda, such as providing affordable health care for everyone, shoring up the Social Security and Medicare programs, and reversing Bush’s huge tax cuts for the wealthy.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney says Kerry “would help us tremendously.” It’s
certain, in any case, that the 13 million-member federation and its 60 member unions are helping Kerry and Democratic congressional candidates tremendously. They’ve provided thousands of campaign workers to register and turn out voters, circulated millions of leaflets, made hundreds of thousands of direct contacts with voters, held innumerable rallies and demonstrations, and more.

If it works, election day should be the happiest in many years for unions
and most ordinary Americans.

(Mr. Meister, an International Labor Communications Association member, has covered labor and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator).