Archive for November 2012
[T]he candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the government upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made, in ordinary litigation between parties, in personal actions, the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.
Abraham Lincoln, quoted in Larry Kramer, The People Themselves.
If “economics” is isolated from other aspects of social life, then the criterion for policymakers becomes the simple one of efficiency. Expenditure, and government policy generally, is to be viewed in terms of whether or not a program pays, whether it creates incentives for the private sector to expand output and employment. In a market economy [sic], government must depend on tax collection, and this in turn depends on the level of economic activity–which depends on the expectation of profit. In the economist’s view, if tax incentives can attract or retain business, they should be granted. The income redistribution effects [sic] of such policies may be regressive but this is simply an unavoidable consequence of a market economy: government can step in after production decisions are made and through tax expenditure policies rectify any damage that may have resulted. How much and what type of action it will take will be decided in the political arena.
Yet government, especially at the local level, in under constant pressure not to redistribute from the rich to the poor.
–William K. Tabb, The Long Default : New York City and the Urban Fiscal Crisis.
I’ve expressed skepticism about the possibility of federal labor law reform, the white whale of organized labor. Instead, I’ve suggested two alternate routes–first, the use of executive orders or other presidential policies to advance labor rights, and second, state level reforms. Obviously, any effort needs to find a way to make a case that goes beyond ‘this will be good for unions’. This is true even through non-union workers and society as a whole benefits from strong unions.
At Just Cause Reform (h/t Corey Robin), Rand Wilson offers a suggestion that meets that criteria and can be pursued at multiple levels–meaning it would not depend on getting a bill through the Senate.
What’s left to achieve that might inspire all workers—union and non-union alike?
“Employment security” could be the remaining frontier. A campaign to pass state laws requiring “just cause” before a worker is fired could also spur union growth, since one of the top reasons workers are afraid of organizing is the knowledge they are likely to be terminated.
Our existing laws have not diminished workers’ fears because the procedures are too uncertain and lengthy (two to three years at the Labor Board and another two years in the courts) to provide any assurance. Winning state “just cause” laws that allow cases to be decided quickly by arbitrators might give workers more confidence.
On the face of it, this proposal seems far more plausible then the alternatives.
Winning “just cause” legislation will certainly not be easy. But building a movement on a similar scale to the effort put behind EFCA would offer union activists an opportunity to champion an issue that would benefit all workers and also help union growth.
A “just cause” campaign could potentially engage working people at many levels. Short of state or federal legislation, local unions, central labor councils, and worker centers could seek to enforce a just cause standard through workers’ rights boards and community pressure.
I don’t see this as a magic bullet. But in terms of finding a way to turn back the tide, both for union rights (and density) and employee rights in general, this holds a lot of promise. I was drawn to the idea of just cause employment before, but thinking about it as labor law reform makes it even more appealing.
To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment, indeed, even of the amount and use of purchasing power, would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity ‘labour power’ cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this particular commodity. In disposing of man’s labour power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity ‘man’ [sic] attached to that tag. Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed. Finally, the market administration of purchasing power would periodically liquidate business enterprise, for shortages and surfeits of money would prove as disastrous to business as floods and droughts in primitive society.
Karl Polanyi, quoted in David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism.
Josh Eidelson has a story on Richard Trumka’s post-election analysis. The AFL-CIO chief insists “We won’t be taken for granted,” pointing to labor’s essential role in the reelection on Barack Obama, as well as helping key progressives win their Senate races. As a negotiating tactic, making demands after you’re provided support is not ideal.
Trumka takes a stronger stance when it comes to what he wants regarding Social Security and Medicare than some others have, but his reading of where the president has been on this is overly optimistic.
“If any bipartisan deal includes cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, or extends the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent,” Trumka pledged, “we will oppose it.” Asked about “chained CPI” – a way to slow Social Security’s growth that Sen. Bernie Sanders has warned could be part of a bipartisan deal – Trumka said, “That is definitely a cut to Social Security benefits.” Asked if he’s confident Obama would hold the line against cutting social insurance or extending all of the Bush tax cuts, Trumka answered, “I think so. He’s been pretty clear about that.” (In a September MSNBC appearance, top Obama adviser David Axelrod mentioned both “raise the cap” and “adjust the growth of the program” as elements of a Social Security “discussion worth having.”)
As always, near the top of the list is comprehensive labor law legislation. I’d say the odds of any labor law legislation is close to zero, while the odds of legislation that is both comprehensive and positive is in fact zero. (As an aside, I don’t understand our general insistence that reform legislation should be comprehensive. That usually means that it will be seriously flawed, since progressive forces are usually the weaker ones in our present political climate, a weakness that, as I’ve argued before, is not a product of lack of popular support. What we need is legislation that creates a positive feedback loop.) Hopefully the false promise of labor law reform won’t keep people from fighting tooth and nail against cuts in social insurance.
But legislation is not the only way to improve the situation for labor rights. Eidelson continues:
Meanwhile, there’s plenty the Obama administration could do – and so far hasn’t – without Congress. With an executive order, the president could change federal contracting to exclude more union-busting companies. With regulations, his Labor Department could restrict the use of dangerous equipment by teenagers working on factory farms, or extend basic overtime protections to domestic workers.
Trumka called for swift action on a long-delayed OSHA regulation regarding silica dust. Asked how quickly it should move, Trumka answered, “Last year.” As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks currently underway, Trumka said, “They have to make sure they negotiate a deal that actually helps in-sourcing rather than promotes outsourcing. That’s a position that he stood for throughout this election, and I feel confident that he will follow through on that.”
In fact, the Obama White House had drafted a fair contracting rule prior to the 2010 election, but didn’t issue it after the Republicans took the House.
I recognize that legislation is more long-lasting, but since there’s no reason for us to push for other things as well. To be clear, I’m not laying all the blame for inaction on the feet of the White House – there has been very little discussion of the possibility anywhere. Until we push for it, it’s on us.
One more thought. Not all workers are covered by federal labor law. State employees, domestic workers, and agricultural workers are all outside the NLRB’s jurisdiction. States could extend protections to those workers. I wrote before about government enforcing labor standards on government assisted businesses and those with government contacts at the local level to protect workers. And despite the fact that it didn’t pass in Michigan, the idea of seeking a constitutional amendment to protect collective bargaining rights. There are numerous ways that protections can be sought. The tendency to focus on legislation draws out attention away from that.