January 16, 2009

Commentary:

Union Solidarity Forever—Except on Capitol Hill

By Victor Kamber

A hopeful sign as the 111th Congress convenes and President-elect Obama prepares to take office is a new spirit of bipartisanship, brought on by the worst of times. On both sides of the aisle there is more fear than loathing. Every day more people lose their jobs, more businesses go bankrupt. The country simply has too many problems for political infighting on Capitol Hill.

What we’re learning is that Democrats and Republicans can work together, on just about anything, unless it involves organized labor.

Obama’s proposed $800 billion economic stimulus package has drawn some sharp intakes of breath from GOP fiscal conservatives but no more so than from Blue Dogs Democrats, both trying to adjust to a new world of spending where big is never big enough.

You heard few objections from either party at the need to assist state and local governments with handouts of, oh, maybe $150 billion.

Even the thorny issue of health care reform now has bipartisan support. The infamous “Harry and Louise” television ads that helped sink the Clinton plan in 1993 are being reissued by the same small business lobby, only this time they’re on the side of reform.

But those issues involved no conflict between unions and the corporate world, bastions of partisanship.

That’s why improving our education system is stymied. Everyone agrees there is a problem, but Republicans want to solve it by crushing the teachers unions.

And who can forget the debacle of the auto bailout? With GOP senators in the South, ideology isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing. At the hearings on the bailout bill, they made it clear they would rather beat up on unions than solve our nation’s economic crisis. Those with foreign car plants in their Right-to-Work states refused support unless UAW members took pay cuts. Think about it. At a time when the economy is the pits and consumers lack cash to shop, Republicans want a bailout that cuts wages. It is little wonder that the Grand Old Party continues to melt like the ice caps.

Obama is seeking long-term, structural solutions to our economic problems and that includes making it possible for workers to join unions. Unions are good not only for workers but for our economy. Union workers earn higher wages and are more likely to have pensions and health insurance. A recent survey found that most American workers “believe joining a union can help them achieve the American Dream” and would join one if they were protected from retaliation from employers. That’s the purpose of the Employee Free Choice Act (the so-called “card-check” bill) that Obama co-sponsored in the Senate.

It is uncertain whether he will push early for passage of the bill, knowing the havoc it will wreak with bipartisan support of his other legislative goals. But appointing California Rep. Hilda Solis as his Labor Secretary is a good sign. “Unions are vital to the health and strength of our communities, and our workers are the bedrock of our economy,” said Solis, who co-sponsored the card-check bill in the House.

Solis believes in the “American Dream” because she lived it. She is the daughter of immigrants who were blue-collar union workers. She credits unions with securing the wages and benefits that allowed her parents to move their family into the middle class, send their children to college and raise a daughter who was elected to Congress.

As Labor Secretary, she inherits a department that for eight years abandoned its mission to protect workers. A good example is OSHA, where the Bush administration director said “employers, not workers,” were the agency’s real customers.

People are still losing their jobs, more businesses are closing. Will Congress ignore that for all-out war on card-check?

Victor Kamber is a political consultant and a recipient of the PR News’ 2006 Hall of Fame Award for his outstanding career in labor communications and politics. His blog can be read at www.victorkamber.com.

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