Sunday, January 20, 2013

Issue #97 January 20, 2013- Worker's Rights Now and for the Future

Worker's Rights, The Current Situation…
Over the past few years we've seen a radical shift in the legislation and policies that govern much of the labor environment in the United States.  Some states have seen more change than others, but on the whole there has been a significant amount of alteration in this area.  Most of the changes have pushed the labor environment to the right, some in very drastic ways.  The rationale for the changes, or "reforms", is that they are supposed to revive, restore or otherwise save some aspect of our economy.  In addition we are seeing the "reforms" touted as a return to our "roots" where freedom is allowed to thrive. 

Republicans enjoyed tremendous success at the state and local levels in  the election of 2010 and gained the power to make changes that would implement their ideas of limiting the power of organized labor, cutting back on protective regulations and expanding the power of business in general.  They were able to gain control of all branches of government in some states, like Wisconsin, and this allowed them virtually unlimited abilities to implement "reforms".  In most cases, once again very visibly in Wisconsin, they did so without much effort to compromise or to work in a bi-partisan manner.  Instead, they relied on their power as the majority party to simply force their legislation and policy changes through. 

Labor responded, and continues to respond, in virtually every manner possible short of a general strike.  Wisconsin's public sector workers led the way in February of 2011.  We saw efforts to resist the "reform movement" of the GOP in other states as well.  Workers took to the streets, engaged in political action (recalls and referenda), challenged laws in courts and used other methods to try and defend the gains made by labor over many generations of struggles. 

In some places the tide of "reform" was slowed or even halted.  Who can forget the strong victory for labor in Ohio, as voters rejected the anti-labor legislation in overwhelming numbers.   

Wisconsin fought constant political battles for over a year as multiple state senators, and ultimately Governor Walker, faced recalls.  The controversial anti-labor legislation, Act 10, is now tied up in court with some of the aspects of the bill currently ruled unconstitutional. 

Along with the successes that labor enjoyed came setbacks.  Michigan passed Right to Work legislation quickly and behind locked doors.  Republicans continued to use their political power to implement policy changes in states where they have majorities.  Often these are done through administrative procedures or by appointing anti-labor individuals to key policy making positions.

The end results of about 2 years of intense conflict are difficult to assess.  On one hand it is clear that labor faces an increasingly unfriendly environment.  Conservatives have effectively utilized propaganda and the media to paint organized labor in a negative light.  The GOP's control of many state governments allows them to impose their ideas on the people they "represent".  These are truly discouraging times for supporters of worker's rights.  However, the picture is not without hope.  Labor has won victories and has been able to maintain their presence in the debate.  The visible assaults on organized labor has galvanized support, increased membership's participation and reinvigorated a labor movement that was stagnating in many ways. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in Wisconsin.  The events of February and legislation like Act 10 had an immediate impact on workers in the state.  Many school systems and municipalities now operate with handbooks (or similar documents) instead of contracts.  These places are seeing the impact of what Governor Walker and his supporters want our workplaces to look like.  Act 10 shifted the balance of power almost entirely to management.  The law allowed municipalities and school boards to set policy and working conditions virtually unilaterally. 

Yet, at the same time the labor movement here in Wisconsin hasn't been more active for many years.  In fact it is the actions of the workers over the past two years that is slowing the tide of "reform".  Because of the strong response by Wisconsin's workers, GOP leadership is reluctant to take on issues like Right to Work.  We are also seeing labor organizing and looking for ways to build for the future under the restrictions that have been imposed on them.  

One of the ways that labor is fighting back is by educating the public and informing their membership about the effects that conservative labor "reforms" can have on our economic futures.  Conservatives would have us believe that by giving management control of the workplace, the economy will automatically improve.  However, the results of their "reforms" isn't as clear cut as they would like us to believe. 

One example of this is the Right to Work legislation that conservatives value so highly.  

The struggle is nowhere near to being finished.  The most recent news from the Federal Courts isn't positive for labor, but we still have a successful injunction against Act 10 in the Wisconsin Judicial System.  

WEAC v Walker -- 7th Circuit Decision.pdf

Worker's Rights, Civil Rights, Human Rights…
As we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and legacy it is important to remember that worker's rights were a big part of King's message.  He recognized the value of labor unions and saw worker's rights to organize as vitally important to achieving a more equitable society.  The Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for worker's rights are intertwined throughout history and we must remember that as we work to promote a more socially just society.   Worker's rights provide a unifying cause that almost all citizens, no matter what demographic group they are a part of, can unite behind.  Most of us are workers in some way, shape or form and our support for each other is vital to the continuing success of our society and our economy. 

We often hear the arguments made that civil rights protections are no longer needed, or that labor unions are obsolete.  Some would have us believe that, while those things were needed in the past when there was widespread discrimination and horrific working conditions, our society has become so fair and just that everyone can enjoy equal opportunity in a market free of regulation.  Ironically, these are often the same people who say that Marx, and other similar thinkers, was misguided because human nature calls for people to try and rise above others.  If Socialism and Communism won't work because of human nature, how can Capitalism or free market ideologies ever produce a fair and just society.  This gets at the heart of the differences between progressives and conservatives.  Progressives look to build a society for the good of all, while conservatives look to build a society where some can thrive and everyone competes to be one of the successful few. 

In a perfect world we wouldn't need civil rights laws, we wouldn't need protections for workers, in fact we wouldn't need most of the legislation and policies that we currently have.  Everyone would look out for each other and treat each other fairly no matter what their demographic group might be.  For conservatives this world is governed by a free market, unfettered by troublesome restrictions.  Those who support this view have forgotten their history and are ignoring the current realities of our world socially, politically and economically.  In a free market, everyone looks out for themselves, and those with more power can do so much more effectively than those with less power.  Over time power consolidates and we see the stratification of society and the end of that society's ability to claim to be free and equal.   

There will always be a struggle between groups of people trying to make their voices heard.  Dr. King spoke eloquently about the continuing struggle and portrayed the different struggles as parts of the same larger conflict.  Those who follow his thinking and see him as a role model are working to do the same thing today.  As so many signs at the capitol in Madison stated, "Worker's rights are human rights!"  We can't allow ourselves to fragment and be divided in the quest for a socially just society. 

State of Our State…
Tuesday brought us the much anticipated (for a variety of reasons, positive and negative) State of the State Address given by Governor Walker.  Like or dislike the Governor, it is clear that he is a polarizing figure who has split our state into separate, hostile camps.  That may be the most disturbing stamp that his administration has placed on Wisconsin.  

While claiming to be trying to steer clear of controversy, Walker clearly has a couple of items on his administration's agenda that will fail to achieve this goal.  The proposed mining legislation will stir up a storm of conflicting data and emotions and will pit two conflicting economic, social and ecological outlooks. 

Education "reform" will also be a source of bitter conflict during the upcoming year as conservatives attempt to expand privatization and use their power generated by Act 10 to dismantle public education in Wisconsin.  

Another aspect of the conflict that is cause for concern is the reshaping of our political maps by GOP legislative majorities in many states.  This means that the Republicans will be able to maintain their advantage in these decision making bodies even if they aren't able to garner a majority of the vote.  It is true at the local/state level as well as the national level.  It is disturbing because it creates a situation where the voice of the majority is silenced and we are faced with potentially permanent domination by one party. 

Unions in 2013, Organizing for the Future…
It seems quite clear that the far Right has taken firm control of the Republican Party in Wisconsin.  The agenda proposed by the Walker administration and Republicans in the legislature pushes our state farther to the right than it has been in a long time.  At the same time the Democratic Party has not proven their ability to counter the power exercised by the GOP.  It has taken grassroots organizations, often powered by union members, to resist the efforts of the GOP to expand their power here.

The power of unions was made clear during the protests of 2011 and the subsequent recall efforts.  Unions provided the people power and the organizing ability to help make these actions possible.  Now however, unions are facing a tough test of their ability to survive and need to find ways to be effective under new and harsh legislation and regulation.  Just when our need for organized labor is at its highest, it faces restrictions that impair the ability of workers to organize and effectively represent their interests.

We are not without hope.  There are a number of ways that unions can continue to have an impact socially, politically and economically.

Reach Out and Communicate- Unions are a collection of individuals operating for a common interest.  Without communication it is difficult to maintain an organization that has seen its ability to negotiate for and represent its membership decrease in recent days.  Members need to have a stream of information that keeps them connected with their peers and with the efforts of other groups to promote the rights of workers.  The best way to communicate is to take the time to speak face to face with individual members.  Union leaders, or stewards, need to be visible and communicate directly with the membership.  This takes time and effort, but the rewards are significant. 

Unions must also reach out beyond their membership to communicate with the communities they live and work in.  An example of this is a group of parents, educators and other community members that has formed at my school.  We meet regularly and discuss issues around public education and how to have a positive impact on the policies enacted in our school district.  By communicating with those outside of our unions we are able to share ideas and build support for our efforts, while connecting with and supporting our communities as well.  Respect and trust is built between groups and the best interests of the community can be advanced. 

Build From Within- Unions must retain their membership and look for ways to expand the number of employees they represent.  A union's strength is its members and their collective support of the organization.  Every potential member is another source of power for unions. 

Maintain Their Organizational Structure- It might be tempting to reduce staff or to cut back on other aspects of a union's organization, but unions need to maintain what they have in the face of the current challenges.  I have seen the amazing ability of union staff to organize efforts quickly when needed.  The "infrastructure" of a union is crucial to our efforts to mobilize support and collective actions of members.  If this "infrastructure" is allowed to erode, the efforts of union members will be less effective in the future.     

Find New Ways to Promote the Interests of Their Membership- Depending on the current state (or lack) of a collective bargaining agreement, unions may be severely restricted in their ability to negotiate for members' wages, benefits or working conditions.  In addition we have seen how legislation can cause a union to be cautious in challenging administrations or management.  Yet, the need for unions is great and unions must find other ways to represent their membership if the traditional ways are not as readily available.  Now is the time for unions to look for creative ways to advance their goals and also to look for allies wherever they may be found. 

Buy Local…
One of the challenges to spending money on products, and at stores, that promote progressive values is that so many companies are owned by staunch conservatives.  A CEO may make a statement or implement a company policy that undermines worker's rights, or promotes an agenda that we oppose, but the local businesses that are part of the franchise are the ones that suffer for the words/acts of the leadership.  This restricts the spending options for progressive shoppers and also harms local economies.  It's the same old story, where the wealthy are not impacted as severely by their words/deeds as those farther down the chain. 

Here's an example of a CEO making some strong statements, but there are many other similar situations that have happened recently.  The statements of the CEO draw national attention and are easy to spot.  What is more difficult to uncover is what the management and staff at the local businesses feel about what their leadership says.  In some cases the employees and management at the local level is in agreement with their leadership, but in others they are more interested in their continued employment than in making a political/social/economic statement. 

This still doesn’t change the fact that we must continue to try and shop responsibly and make our opinions known.  However, we must keep looking for ways to promote businesses and products rather and focus our energy on positive ways to impact the economy. 

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