Labor leaves no stone unturned

Organized labor is flexing its muscles, showing that it is tired of taking it on the chin. If the unions have their way, between now and Election Day 2008, even the ultra-right lock on the White House and Congress could be broken.

Unions flexed their muscles in off-year election campaigns that ended in victories Nov. 6. Thousands of union members combed neighborhoods, buttonholed people at worksites and operated phone banks to rack up wins for labor at the polling places.

Nowhere was this truer than in Kentucky, where incumbent Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher is now job hunting.

“This was payback time,” said Bill Londrigan, Kentucky’s AFL-CIO president. Fletcher was hated by labor because he had cancelled collective bargaining rights for state workers. He had privatized Medicaid and had advocated wage rollbacks for state workers. His opponent, Democrat Steve Beshear, won by a 20-point margin. Fifty-eight percent cited the economy, education or health care as their top reason for voting for him.



Cusp of a major shift

The figures support conclusions drawn right after the election by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who said, “We’re on the cusp of a shift that could re-define American politics for decades to come. Working people want real health care reform that covers every American. They want their freedom to form and join unions restored. They want to stop the hemorrhaging of good, middle-class jobs out of the country and they want a secure retirement.”

If labor achieves its aim of duplicating the way it operated in Kentucky this year all over the country next year, the right wing could be in serious trouble. Seven thousand union members who live in the Bluegrass State worked on labor’s campaign. They distributed 465,000 leaflets on a one-on-one, face-to-face basis at workplaces and at workers’ homes. Some 65,000 of those distributions were done on Election Day. In the last four days of the campaign, 2,100 union members made 75,000 phone calls to “pull” union voters out to the polls. On the last Saturday, 440 union members talked to 8,000 union families in their homes.



Close NLRB for ‘renovations’

Labor’s growing offensive against the right seems to be leaving no stone unturned. On Nov. 16, unions staged mass marches and rallies in more than 20 cities across the country, demanding that the National Labor Relations Board be “closed for renovations.” The unions were saying, essentially, that when you have a corporate-friendly NLRB in charge of protecting workers’ rights, it is akin to the old tale of the fox guarding the henhouse.

In Nashville, Tenn., a very evil-looking, 6-foot-tall fox took the role of the NLRB as union members marched in front of the board’s regional office to protest its long line of anti-labor decisions since President Bush took control.

The NLRB decisions the unions are out in the streets protesting include the board’s elimination of the right of some 8 million people, including nurses, building and construction trade workers, journalists and others, to form unions by expanding the definition of “supervisor.” The NLRB has issued 60 rulings that make it harder for workers to form unions but easier to get rid of existing unions; make it easier for employers to escape liability for breaking the law and weaken already ineffective remedies; and make it easier for employers to discriminate against union supporters and to replace strikers.

Three thousand trade unionists marched and rallied at NLRB headquarters in Washington, D.C., while thousands more marched or rallied at other events in Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Mich., Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Portland, Ore., St. Louis and Tampa, Fla. In Albuquerque, N.M., union members were joined by community and religious activists and city and state lawmakers in a rally outside the federal building, drawing cheers and honks of support from pedestrians and drivers passing by. NLRB Chairman Robert Battista, who is supposed to be unbiased and neutral when it comes to workers, unions and labor law, issued a statement calling the protests “shrill.”



New level of militancy

Labor’s upsurge is not limited to elections, fighting for manufacturing jobs, labor organizing rights, health care and fair trade policy and fighting against the anti-union efforts of the Bush administration. The struggle for wages and justice at the workplace is also high on its agenda these days. Recent and current strikes seem to display a new level of militancy. In the first strike in its 121-year history, the stagehands’ union local in New York has shut down much of Broadway, while a walkout by 12,000 Hollywood writers is creating problems for television and film producers. These strikes come close on the heels of strikes by 74,000 workers at General Motors and 45,000 at Chrysler.

When 350 stagehands went on strike Nov. 16, closing down 27 Broadway shows, it was after the producers announced a policy that would reduce the number of stagehands per production as well as the overtime that stagehands would receive.

GM and Chrysler workers went on strike after the automakers demanded reduction of their responsibility for retiree health plans and a lower wage scale for new hires.

Whether the strikes result in victories is a question, but what is not in question is the high level of readiness by both unions and their members to use the strike weapon when they feel it is necessary.

The Writers Guild took to the picket lines after Hollywood producers refused to increase the payments they give writers from sales of DVDs and refused to offer extra payments when writers’ work was used in new media like the Internet or cell phone transmissions. Many writers were furious that the producers continued to offer them only 5 cents in payment per DVD.



Sleeping giant awakes

These highly publicized strikes are by no means the only ones that show a new level of union militancy. Six hundred nurses went on strike two months ago at Appalachian Regional Healthcare, a chain of nine hospitals in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. The strike was the nurses’ response to management demands for higher health insurance premiums, less holiday pay and cuts in paid hours.

The heightened activity by labor includes a dramatic increase in organizing. In the last year alone, unions have organized tens of thousands of low-wage workers, particularly at hotels and in child care, janitorial service and home health care.

When you put all these trends together, many observers say, you see a sleeping giant waking up.

John Wojcik (jwojcik @pww.org) is People’s Weekly World labor editor.