While most of our attention will rightly be focused on the news coverage of Hurricane Gustav--we're watching on the Weather Channel right now--it is Labor Day, and as the Democrats pointed out time and again during the convention last week, organized labor is in bad shape in this country. But there's some hope that the institutional forces arrayed against organizing might be broken down somewhat in an Obama administration.
I've been through an organizing attempt before, and I'm ashamed to say that because I was ignorant of the history of labor, I was easily swayed by the management's tactics. It was about 15 years ago when I was working at a grocery warehouse, and pretty much every tactic that anti-labor people use today was used then. We were told that we'd probably wind up making less under a union, because management would stop looking at us as a family and would start looking at us as an enemy (yeah, I was naive). We were told that our depot might be shut down if the union came in, because we lived in a "right-to-work" state, and that unionization would make labor so expensive that the company could afford to build a new warehouse elsewhere and still be more profitable. We were told lies about unions in general, and about the way they worked, and because there's no institutional history of unionization in the south, it all worked, because we didn't know any better.
That's why, with all due respect to William Gould IV, I think his compromise between the current system of secret elections and the Democratic push for a card check system won't quite work. Gould suggests that the problem with secret elections is in the way they're being held, and not with the process. He recommends reforms--quicker elections, and allowing organizers to have access to employees during the run-up to the election, and greater penalties for companies that break the rules.
The problem with that is that the penalties won't be severe enough to deter companies from illegal union tactics. Not to be too over-the-top here, but the Gould's suggestion is somewhat like a dictator suggesting that he'll reform his elections so that thugs can only beat voters into voting the right way as opposed to shooting them. Given the huge amounts of money we're talking about here, there's still no real deterrent to companies doing whatever they can to break union organizing.
The only real solution is to make it so that once a majority of workers sign on, the union comes into existence, which is what the Employee Free Choice Act would require. It has passed the House before, only to be hung up in the Senate, and it faced a certain veto from Bush. But if we can get close to 60 votes in the Senate, and we can elect a President Obama, we just might be able to rejuvenate organized labor in this country, and help rebuild the working and middle classes.