« The New AFL-CIO: Wither Safety & Health? | Main | Santorum's Sweatshop Expansion Bill »

March 04, 2005

Politics Will Not Save Labor

In the end, the showdown in Las Vegas between the union factions ended up more of a standoff, with the majority pushing through relatively minor reforms in the face of more far-reaching proposals by unions representing 40% of AFL-CIO members-- deferring the fight to the summer convention.

Instead of emphasizing new worker organizing, unfortunately, the majority proposals emphasize increased spending on politics, not worker organizing.

While there's no doubt federal labor law changes would assist organizing, that's just not going to happen any time soon in the face of GOP filibusters. There is a chicken-and-egg problem for labor: labor's numbers have decreased, so their political power has declined, which means they can't change the law without expanding their membership numbers. Dramatic labor law changes will be the result of an upsurge in new worker organizing, not the cause of it.

Now, there are opportunities for legal changes at the state and local level, something I know well, since my day job is helping local community-labor coalitions pass such legislation. But even political work at that level will be useless if spending on organizing isn't expanded to take advantage of any legal changes.

Look at the converse side of corporate power. Yes, corporations have influence because of their bankrolling of politicians, but their real power stems from their economic power, their ability to threaten to move jobs to a different state or even overseas unless politicians do what they demand.

Similarly, politicians have historically made legal changes favoring unions only when the alternative was disruptive labor conflict. The federal government either ignored or actively suppressed labor unions during the 19th century. It was only when mineworkers were able to shut down the athracite coal fields for months in 1902, threatening disruption of heating supplies around the country, that Teddy Roosevelt became the first President in American history to intervene in a strike in a positive manner, supporting union demands for binding arbitration to raise wages. And when the Wagner Act was passed in the 1930s, its purpose was specifically to calm the upsurge of wildcat strikes spreading throughout the economy in order to preserve, "labor peace."

If "labor peace" already exists because of too little organizing and lack of strength in the workplace by unions, politicians will feel no real pressure to change the law. Money can't buy political power for unions; only organizing will deliver it.

Posted by Nathan at March 4, 2005 09:08 AM