By Marie Cocco
I must admit that when the danger of a global financial implosion became apparent in March with the taxpayer-backed takeover of Bear Stearns by banking giant JPMorgan Chase, I did not understand how all those worthless Wall Street credit swaps really could be the fault of an overpaid union welder at an auto plant somewhere in Michigan.
Heck. Despite having once listened as Republican leader Tom DeLay gave a House speech blaming the 1999 Columbine High School shootings on mothers who use birth control and the teaching of evolution in schools, I still underestimate the peculiar genius that conservative Republicans show in exploiting dire, even tragic, situations to wield a partisan cudgel.
Senate Republicans’ effort to break the United Auto Workers union as the pound of flesh they wanted in exchange for loans to teetering automakers—companies that are on the brink because of a credit crisis they did not cause—was over the top, even drawing objections from the Bush White House. The administration is now rushing to find money for Detroit somewhere in the huge pot of financial-industry bailouts, lest the automakers go down and take what’s left of the economy with them.
Understand that the conservative assault on the UAW is just a warm-up act.
The main event for these contemporary Pinkertons will come after Barack Obama is sworn in as president and Democrats seek to pass a measure that would make it easier for workers to organize unions. It is the Employee Free Choice Act, and its intent is to push back—at least a bit—on the multimillion-dollar union-busting business that has become institutionalized since the political assault on labor was juiced up with President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 mass firing of air traffic controllers. When Reagan supplanted the striking controllers with “replacement workers” (previously known as strikebreakers or scabs), business got the message: It was perfectly acceptable, if not advantageous, to bust unions or to keep them from being organized. From there, it was a small step toward the widespread use of unethical, and sometimes illegal, tactics.
“When it comes to workers’ right to form unions, loophole-ridden laws, paralyzing delays and feeble enforcement have created a culture of impunity in many areas of U.S. labor law and practice,” according to a 2005 report by Human Rights Watch. In the 1950s, a few hundred workers each year suffered reprisals for union organizing. By the early part of this decade, according to the report, about 20,000 workers a year suffered a reprisal serious enough for the National Labor Relations Board to order back pay or take other steps.
Academic research has demonstrated that much of the illicit anti-union activity is conducted after employees have signed cards indicating they want a union, but before a formal election is held. This is what the “free choice act” aims to eliminate: a waiting period during which three-quarters of companies hire consultants to thwart the organizing drive and engage in a variety of pressure tactics to keep employees from ultimately voting “yes.” About half of companies threaten to close the plant if the union wins the election, according to research by Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University.
No wonder then that in a memo from which the author’s name was removed—but which is believed to have been circulated among Republicans last week during the auto industry imbroglio—lawmakers were told, “This is the Democrats’ first opportunity to pay off organized labor after the election. This is a precursor to card check and other items. ... Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it.”
But the blows of this economy have been harshest on average workers. Before the current recession began, paychecks still had not recovered from the 2001 recession. Wages and benefits have been eroding. One way to stanch the trend is to tip the scale—now tilted so heavily in favor of Wall Street and wealth—back the other way. Otherwise, when the economy recovers, the fruits will again trickle up to the executive suite.
“If workers are going to benefit from this recovery, they are going to have to have the ability to bargain for higher wages and higher benefits. We can’t depend on employers on their own to deliver the benefits of this recovery to workers,” says Bill Samuel, legislative director of the AFL-CIO. “We have to change the equation here.”
That is the kind of change conservatives just don’t believe in.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group