HTUP Analysis: Clinton and Labor
From HTUP%HARVARDA.BITNET@cmsa.Berkeley.EDU Mon Oct 25 13:59:10 1993
Date: Mon, 25 Oct 1993 16:34:54 EST
Reply to: Progressive Economists Network 
To: Multiple recipients of list PEN-L 

                            CLINTON AND LABOR

Elaine Bernard, Executive Director,
Harvard University Trade Union Program
October 13, 1993

     Few popular groups worked as hard as organized labor for the
election of a Democratic administration.  Over the dozen years of
the last two Republican administrations, unions have seen their
ranks shrink from just under 25% of the workforce in 1980 to a
dismal 16% of the workforce today.  In the private sector, once
the stronghold of labor, less than 12% of the workforce is
organized.  The US currently has the second lowest rate of
unionization of all OECD countries -- second only to France.

     Yet, the decline in numbers has done nothing to reduce
business and government attacks on organized labor.  Vilified as
"big labor," unions stand accused of undermining US productivity
and competitiveness through restrictive work practices, high
wages and costly benefits.  Even as working people's real wages
declined throughout the decade, labor continued to be targeted as
a major culprit in the decline in US economic performance.  In a
rare exception to the overall deregulatory drive of government,
unions have faced increased restrictions on their activities and
greater regulation, reporting and monitoring through court and
administrative actions.

     Throughout the country there has been a severe erosion of
the right to organize.  Still, with few legal rights in the
workplace and no right to participate in workplace decision-
making outside of collective bargaining, unionization is a
necessary prerequisite for American workers for acquiring and
exercising their basic rights in the workplace.  Grim statistics
however, point to a regime of fear, intimidation and isolation
which characterizes many American workplaces -- and denies
workers the right to organize.  One in ten US workers who attempt
to organize is illegally fired, with reinstatement a lengthy
bureaucratic procedure taking up to three years.  The US remains
one of the only advanced industrial jurisdictions where the
majority of workers are denied basic employment protection, such
as requiring "just cause" for employment termination.  Rather,
they are subject to the doctrine of "employment at will"
essentially permitting employees to be fired at the employers'

     Marginalized as a special interest group by successive
Republican administrations, organized labor saw the victory of
Bill Clinton as an opportunity to recover some of the influence
it once had as the organized voice for working people.  On the
positive side of the balance sheet, labor credits Clinton with
signing the Family and Medical Leave Act into law, an important
reform, although woefully inadequate compared to most other
industrial nations.  This act simply assures that workers in
firms with 50 or more employees may take limited leaves for
compassionate reasons with their health benefits continued, but
without pay.  A step up from indentured servitude, but hardly a
bold initiative in the area of worker rights.

     Lifting the vindictive ban on federal employment for the
Patco strikers fired by Reagan in 1981 was applauded by labor.
But twelve years after the dispute, with few openings for federal
air traffic controllers, the administration's action is best seen
as a symbolic gesture.  A more significant act, although one
which is clearly in the interests of the Democrats as well as
organized labor is the repeal of sections of the Hatch Act
banning political activity by federal employees.

     Finally, the nomination of Stanford Law Professor William
Gould IV as Chair of the National Labor Relations Board has
raised labor's hopes for positive action from the board.  With
considerable power in rule making, an activist NLRB interested in
enforcing worker rights through a commitment to expedite
deliberations and court enforcement of its decision-making could
do much to discourage union busting and encourage organization
even under existing law.

     At the Department of Labor, the appointment of Harvard
Kennedy School of Government Professor Robert Reich as Secretary
of Labor could hardly be described as labor's choice.  But
leaders preferred to see the appointment as an opportunity to
elevate the importance of the Department within the cabinet and
within the government.  Better to have someone who has the
President's ear, they reasoned, than someone whose views might be
closer to labor, but less influential with the President.
However, Reich's views differ from labor on a number of pivotal
matters and despite the few gains listed above, there is trouble
ahead between labor and the Clinton administration -- especially
on two major issues in the labor agenda: labor law reform and the
North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

     On labor law reform, the administration has appointed a ten-
person "Commission for the Future of Worker-Management Relations"
chaired by former Labor Secretary and Harvard Professor Emeritus,
John T. Dunlop.  Preferring to look to academics and former Labor
Secretaries rather than practitioners (there are four former
secretaries on the commission including Dunlop), the commission
consists of one retired labor leader, former United Autoworkers'
President Douglas Fraser, and one senior business person, Xerox
board chairperson and CEO, Paul Allaire.  With the overwhelming
majority of US management adamantly opposed to any labor law
reform, there is a logic to avoiding practitioners on the
commission.  The commission's mandate is couched completely in
the management-oriented terms of competitiveness, productivity
and cooperation with the administration, fully accepting the
notion that what's good for US business is by definition good for
the US worker.  Rather pointedly, the mandate is silent on
democratic values of equality, social justice, and worker rights.
Ideologically continuing the neo-liberal policies of the Bush
administration, fuzzy notions of democracy and workers rights can
only be discussed if they prove their productive utility in the
competitive market place.

     Nailing the point home, Labor Secretary Reich is quoted in
the August 8th New York Times as stating, "The jury is still out
on whether the traditional union is necessary for the new
workplace."  One hopes that the emphasis in this remarkable
statement for a Secretary of Labor is on "traditional" and that
Reich is simply searching for a "new unionism" -- one better
geared to the needs of women, people of color, service workers,
employees of small businesses and the growing numbers of
"contingent workers" (non-permanent, or non-full time employees,
now approximately one quarter of the US workforce).  But his
management-oriented charge to the commission and endless other
observations on "high performance workplaces," gives little
indication that there is much concern in the administration about
the tremendous imbalance of power between management and labor in
the American workplace.

     Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown suggests that "unions are
O.K. where they are.  And where they are not, it is not clear yet
what sort of organization should represent workers."  What sort
of organization should represent workers?  What ever happened to
the right of self-organization, or freedom of association?  While
technically the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner
Act) with its guarantee of the right to organize and its
promotion of collective bargaining is still the law of the land,
in practice, few US governments, including the present
administration, are interested in promoting collective bargaining
and worker self-organization as the principle method of resolving
workplace disputes and as a means of achieving worker rights and
social justice.  Restoring the right of American workers to
organize would require major labor law reform and the business
community has little reason to want reform -- from their
perspective the current law is working well in making it almost
impossible for most workers to organize.  Business used its
considerable lobbying power to block a modest set of labor law
reforms under the Carter administration, and there are no
indications that in the ensuing years that it has reduced its
opposition to unions or labor law reform.  The Clinton
administration is showing no signs of being willing to take on
the issue of labor rights.  In fact, as the comments of Reich and
Brown demonstrate, they are ambivalent to organized labor --
willing to accept unions where they are (and accept union work
and support for the administration), but not particularly
inclined to see unions as vital workplace organizations in a

     The administration's support of Bush's "free trade" deal
with Mexico and Canada, the North American Free Trade Agreement
(NAFTA) is a good example of the big business approach embraced
by the Clinton administration.  While preaching the gospel of
training and a "high wage and high skilled" economy, the
framework set out in the NAFTA further opens the door to the low
wage, low skill alternative.  It is essentially a free investment
pact.  "Free trade" in the context of NAFTA means freeing
corporations from government regulation.  It locks in, through an
international treaty, relatively unrestricted movement of money,
capital, goods and services, with extensive protections for
property rights, and even creates new property rights, the so-
called "intellectual properties" which extend ownership,
patenting and protection of corporate monopolies in vital fields
such as pharmaceutical, software, and seeds.

     While extending and creating new rights for investors, NAFTA
makes no enforceable provisions for safeguarding the rights of
workers, consumers or protecting the environment.  And the side
agreements on labor rights and the environment -- negotiated by
the Clinton administration to allay the fears of labor and the
environmental community -- are little more than window dressing
making no changes in the basic character of the NAFTA with its
overall approach of downward harmonization of conditions.  The
trade deal makes it possible for companies to challenge standards
and regulations adopted by federal, state and local governments
to protect human, animal or plant life, health, safety, the
environment or consumers.  Legislation and regulation, if it is
higher than the standard of the other countries in the deal,
could be challenged as "technical" or "non-tariff " barriers to
trade.  The final determination of whether or not this higher
standard is a non-tariff barrier to trade and therefore must be
removed will be made by an appointed arbitral panel established
by the agreement.  It is essentially a panel of experts meeting
behind closed doors, an unelected government with power to strike
down legislation.  In the words of Michael Walker, chief
economists with the Fraser Institute, a right wing think tank in
Canada, "A trade agreement simply limits the extent to which the
U.S. or other signatory governments may respond to pressure from
their citizens."  And what is democracy if not responding to
pressure from ones citizen?

     While labor has concentrated its opposition to NAFTA on the
jobs issue, it is the larger character of NAFTA in diminishing
the role of government and democracy that is the long term threat
of the agreement.  The NAFTA explicitly requires that governments
treat social institutions, such as education or health care, as
commercial commodities open to the competitive pressures and the
dictates of the marketplace.  This neo-liberal approach which
Clinton has embraced is a continuation of the disasterous
economic policies for labor and working people of the Reagan/Bush
years.  It's trickle down trade economics.  The administrations
enthusiastic support of the NAFTA has finally forced the labor
movement to call stop.  On this issue, organized labor is
prepared to publicly oppose the administration, and to risk
embarrassing President Clinton by helping to defeat a major piece
of legislation.  What is somewhat surprising is the strength of
the administrations commitment to neo-liberal policies.  There is
a complete failure to recognize that the high skill, high
technology policy touted by the administration is very much at
odds with the free investment, deregulated commerce, and low wage
approach incorporated in the NAFTA agreement.

     While labor is reticent to challenge the administration,
organized labor needs to mobilize its membership and supporters
to create pressure on the administration and the Congress from
the left.  In particular, it needs to represent, not simply to
the administration, but to the community at large, the interests
of working people in the US who have been working harder and
receiving less over the last decade.  The administration needs
pressure from the majority (working people) to take on the
special interests of the minority (big business).  And we need to
remember that no group gives up its privileges easily.  Reform is
not just a matter of winning over one or two votes in the Senate.
Major reform in the US has never been achieve simply by electing
a sympathetic government.  Rather, it has only come about with
the combination of an administration that was open to reform, and
equally as significant, a grassroots movement, organizing,
mobilizing and demanding its rights.  Senator Wagner, not
President Roosevelt, wrote the National Labor Relations Act.  And
he was prompted, not by a sudden conversion to worker rights, but
the reawakening of the labor movement.  Workers actions and
community support provided the momentum to assure the passage of
labor law reform.  The election of a Democratic administration in
the 1992 election provides labor with an opening for change, but
the momentum for change must come from labor itself.


2100 words