Labor making its voice heard

Effects of organized labor’s drive for action on a working families agenda continued to be felt last week even though Congress was not in session.

Among numerous indicators of labor’s new impact on the political scene since the November elections was a federal appellate court ruling Feb. 20 ordering the Bush administration to explain why it has stalled for eight years on rules that would require companies to provide protective equipment for their workers.

Also last week, the Democratic presidential candidates made strong pitches for labor support at a Nevada forum sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Former Sen. John Edwards declared, “The most important anti-poverty program is the organized labor movement.”

At a press conference in San Francisco, meanwhile, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said debate on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would be a top priority when Congress reconvened after the Presidents’ Day recess. The free choice act would require companies to recognize a union once a majority of employees indicate support by signing cards. It would stymie long, drawn out certification processes stacked in favor of the companies.

Just before the congressional recess Ron Blackwell, an economist testifying for the AFL-CIO, told the House Banking and Finance Committee that the Federal Reserve Bank should shape its monetary policy to promote employment as well as to prevent inflation. He said, essentially, that the Federal Reserve, by primarily manipulating interest rates to fight inflation, has ignored its “other mandate” to promote full employment.

“The Federal Reserve’s concentration on fighting inflation to the exclusion of almost everything else ... hurts workers,” he said. “We must restore full employment as the foundation of our country’s economic policy … if we are to reconnect productivity and wages and assure broadly shared economic growth.”

The committee, as a result of last November’s elections, is now chaired by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who had promised before the elections that he would hold such hearings to “answer the question of why the economy isn’t working for working families.”

The Feb. 20 federal court ruling on protective equipment gave Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 30 days to explain why they have failed for eight years to impose a rule requiring companies to buy protective equipment and clothing for workers.

The ruling is a victory for millions of workers whose employers refuse to pay for safety essentials such as goggles, hard hats and gloves. At least 400,000 injuries and 50 deaths over the last eight years can be traced directly to the absence of these types of equipment, according to records maintained by OSHA itself.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union and the AFL-CIO had filed the successful lawsuit.

At the AFSCME presidential candidates forum in Nevada, five candidates — Sen. Hillary Clinton, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who since dropped out of the race, Edwards, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich — pledged to fight for universal health care. Kucinich specifically called for single-payer universal health care, eliminating insurance companies. Sen. Barack Obama did not attend.

Edwards went into the greatest detail on issues of workers’ rights. He endorsed the EFCA, saying, “We need to make it easier to join unions. If a Republican can join the party by signing their name, someone should be able to join a union by signing their name.” He also called for a law that would ban companies from permanently replacing striking workers.

Observers see these developments as indicators of labor’s new post-election clout, and its determination that the mandate of working families voters be fulfilled. If American workers have their way, this will be only the beginning.