The last transfer of power from a Democratic to a Republican Administration from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan–precipitated a disaster for the American labor movement. It was a time of widespread union-busting and contract concessions. Now, disappointed as unions are with Bush’s victory, they do not expect a replay: Bush is no Reagan, and the labor movement itself has changed a lot since the 1980s.
Republicans will certainly try to weaken the labor movement, both through legislation and administrative actions. Even though his first nominee for Labor Secretary, Linda Chavez, was forced to withdraw, Bush made it clear with his choice of that darling of the radical right that his Administration will be actively unfriendly toward unions. While union strategists think they can beat back most legislative attacks, given Bush’s dubious victory and the narrow Republican margin in Congress, they are also determined to go beyond defense and to continue fighting for the same goals as they did under–and at times against–the Clinton Administration.
“We still have to work on the key issues that matter to working Americans,” says Communications Workers executive vice president Larry Cohen. “The strategy doesn’t change, but the tactics do.”
Tactically, with Republicans now in control across the board, labor needs to mobilize its members and the general public to demonstrate, both to Bush and to conservative Democrats hoping to strike a bipartisan compromise, that the popular majority backs labor’s “working families agenda,” not the proposals of the question-mark President selected by a conservative Supreme Court. Looking at polling data and the majority vote for center-left candidates (Gore and Nader combined), union leaders have good reason to believe that most Americans do support a moderate economic populism–universal and comprehensive health care, better education, higher wages, workers’ rights to organize, global economic fairness, campaign finance reform, and tax equity.
Unions also plan to hold Bush to his compassionate conservative pledges. During the campaign, he successfully muddied distinctions between Gore and himself on Social Security, prescription drug coverage, a patients’ bill of rights, and other issues. If labor and its allies take the initiative and stake out clear positions, for example, for universal, comprehensive health care, they may be able to frame the debate around progressive values, not just the details of narrowly drafted bills. If Bush opposes their program, they can paint him as a captive of wealthy special interests and no friend to the average citizen.
Labor had deep stakes in this election. Its early endorsement made a big difference in Gore’s primary victory. It put lots of money into the elections–at least $45 million through the AFL-CIO alone. More importantly, unions beefed up their grassroots organizing, dramatically increasing union household voters (from 23 percent of voters in 1996 to 26 percent) and delivering 59 percent of those votes for Gore. Many labor leaders liked Gore, but most also had low expectations. They had gotten relatively little from Clinton, and they supported Gore partly as a simple defensive maneuver.
Though many union officials see themselves as Democratic Party leaders, there is also an increasingly independent mindset in the labor movement. Unions are more likely now than a decade ago to run major political operations separate from the Democratic candidates and to promote their own issues. Yet, with few potential Republican allies and great obstacles to third parties, labor has to rely on Democrats, even as it pressures them.
Unions should be concerned with issues, not parties, insists Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern. “We should focus on trying to win for our members and not worry about 2002,” he says. “That’s what our members expect us to do and what drives them to the polls. If we believe in things and stand up for them, we’ll quickly find out in both parties who stands with us. We get confused and confuse our members when they see us as lap dogs of the Democratic Party and not watchdogs for their interests.”
But labor is not anxious just to get something done in the interests of bipartisanship. “We need to define what getting things done means,” says AFL-CIO public policy director David Smith. “It would be a mistake to define that as a less bad tax cut. We want to define that as access to health care and more money to educate your kids. It doesn’t mean coming to a minimalist bipartisan deal on a bunch of bad ideas.”
In order to prevent bipartisan agreement on bad ideas, unions and their allies will have to keep conservative Democrats from cutting their own deals with Bush. Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME, the public employees union, says that Democratic defections are a “genuine concern.” He says labor will have to “take strong positions with those folks who may be vulnerable.” That means reminding even Southern conservatives that they depend on labor’s money and African American voters who are now “angry and galvanized.” He adds: “If it comes to it, we will have to be active in the districts and states,” mobilizing their constituents to keep them in line.
Union leaders are worried about Bush’s appointments, not only for Labor Secretary but also at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and the wide range of agencies and departments that affect workplaces. The first nominee, Chavez, had a long and provocative paper trail documenting her opposition to raising the minimum wage, pay equity for women, affirmative action, and bilingual education. She also had suggested both that women don’t bump up against a glass ceiling at work and that many are simply being “crybabies” when they complain about sexual harassment. Bush then settled on Elaine Chao, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, former Bush Administration official, and wife of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. Chao has less of a public record (and very little experience) on labor-related issues, but she is a seasoned bureaucrat and not as abrasive as Chavez. Given the endorsements by business and conservative leaders and the few things that are known about her–such as her opposition to affirmative action –Chao seems to be an ideological clone of Chavez.
Bush will also be able to hamper unions through executive actions. For example, the NLRB has recently issued rulings that make it easier to organize some temporary workers, university graduate teaching assistants, and hospital residents and interns. Bush will quickly be able to make at least two, perhaps three, NLRB appointments, effectively closing off the possibility of such favorable decisions in the near future.
Yet union organizing now often circumvents the NLRB and, in any case, does not depend heavily on the agency.
“I don’t think Bush will matter much for organizing strategy,” says Cohen. “Ninety percent of that since World War II has been about building solidarity at the workplace. It’s harder when the NLRB is worse, but that’s on the margin. Mostly, the problem is employer opposition. If anything, employers got worse over the last eight years, but I don’t blame that on the Administration.”
After initially weakening occupational safety enforcement, the Clinton Administration finally put into effect last November a new standard for ergonomics that should help employees avoid muscular and skeletal injuries and illness. Business had fought against any ergonomics rules for ten years, but Clinton used his veto to stymie Republican efforts to stall the regulation even further. AFL-CIO health and safety director Peg Seminario now worries that Bush will issue an administrative stay of the ergonomics rule and that Republicans in Congress might overturn it.
Clinton’s veto power blocked repeated Republican anti-labor initiatives, and many of those may come back now with only a Senate filibuster to halt passage. Whether Bush takes the lead or not, Congressional Republicans are likely to promote legislation that would eliminate mandatory overtime pay, permit businesses to establish company-dominated “teams” in place of unions, make it easier for companies to use contingent workers, and exempt more businesses from effective workplace safety enforcement. Perhaps as a deadly addition to any campaign finance legislation, Republicans are also likely to push for a national “paycheck protection” law, like the initiative defeated two years ago in California, that would make it extremely difficult for unions to use their funds for political work.
Under Reagan, the labor movement headed for the bunkers, hoping that the Democrats could save them. When that didn’t happen, a growing number of unions started figuring out how to organize new members and how to fight back politically under difficult circumstances.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, unions like the Hotel and Restaurant Employees, Communications Workers, and Service Employees used their bargaining power, strong rank-and-file organizing committees, community allies, civil disobedience, volunteer member organizers, and comprehensive anti-corporate campaigns to win union recognition even from hostile employers.
On the political front, several central labor councils–especially in California–resurrected old-style face-to-face organizing with their “labor to neighbor” campaigns in working class communities, and AFSCME took the lead in developing a more coherent labor strategy for national elections. Some unions, like the Steelworkers, also developed effective mechanisms to mobilize members rapidly for protests or letter-writing on legislative issues. These initiatives underlay the broader program that the Sweeney administration promoted after 1995.
These advances help account for unions’ surprising confidence.
“I believe that the labor movement is more prepared today as an institution than it was in the eighties to make this kind of battle,” says McEntee. “We are organized more than ever before. We’re better equipped, with more resources, and more engaged.”
In the last few years, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has encouraged unions to form a much wider range of coalitions. Unfortunately, many leaders’ anger at Ralph Nader’s Presidential run could now threaten some coalitions. Nader’s groups and the AFL-CIO worked together to organize the 1999 Seattle protests, as well as other actions. A split with the Nader forces would not serve the labor movement well.
If the coalition can stay together, it may grow even more powerful now that Clinton’s pro-free-trade grip on the Democrats has slipped. Today, there is a better chance that Democrats will block fast track legislation and unite behind labor’s view that new international economic agreements must protect workers’ rights and the environment.
There is also a new willingness to build a social crusade, fighting for public support on fundamental values. “We need to start talking about what we believe in,” argues Stewart Acuff, assistant Midwest director of the AFL-CIO. “It needs to come out of our experience of organizing average Americans, evolving out of our trying to build institutions and build power. Now is the time for us to articulate a common set of issues and values.”
Despite the electoral setback, the labor movement seems ready for a rousing and principled fight that could help lay the basis for progressive victories in the near future.
David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times and a fellow of the Nation Institute.