WASHINGTON (PAI) – In the wake of massive losses of union-friendly lawmakers on Election Night 2010, the labor movement must re-group and re-think its strategy for accomplishing its goals, by moving on four tracks: organizing, mobilizing, legislation and working through regulatory agencies. And don’t forget the states.

That’s because trying to get anything positive out of the 112th Congress will be next to impossible.

The GOP-run House will be led by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. The GOP minority in the Senate will have at least 47 seats and even more power to sustain filibusters against pro-worker legislation. It’s led by Mitch McConnell, R-Kent., husband of Elaine Chao, the pro-corporate former Labor Secretary under anti-worker former GOP President George W. Bush.

McConnell has openly said his mission is to ensure Democratic President Barack Obama is a 1-term president. That means even more of “the party of no.”

Put this together and what you have is a recipe for a combination of negativity and gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Still, unions cannot completely ignore Congress. But after two short years of playing offense, and still seeing their top legislative goal, the Employee Free Choice Act, pigeon-holed, workers and their allies must return to playing defense.

That means keeping anti-worker legislation bottled up in the Senate. It means trying to reconstruct a bipartisan coalition, as labor did with GOP-run Congresses in 2001 and again in 2005, to preserve the Davis-Bacon Act. It means sometimes working for wider goals that are not worker-specific, such as extending unemployment benefits.

And it also means striking out on their own even where the Obama administration fears to tread. Indeed, such a test for workers may arise in the lame-duck session scheduled to begin Nov. 15.

Obama himself has said he wants to conclude the controversial U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement – which still lets Korea virtually ban U.S. autos and machinery – on or before the international economic summit scheduled for early November, in Seoul, Korea. Then he’d bring the pact to Congress for up-or-down votes on implementing it.

That brings up what should be the second arm of labor’s strategy: mobilization.

Workers and their allies will have to get out into the streets and make it very clear – as congressional Democrats did not – they are fighting to preserve and enhance the middle class. There will have to be more marches, more protests, more campaigns, on everything from made in the U.S.A., to shutting sweatshops, to wage slavery at Wal-Mart, to jobs-losing so-called “free trade” treaties, such as the U.S.-Korea FTA pact.

The mobilization, at least politically, occurred: Working America, which now has more than 3 million members, did intensive house-to-house leafleting and door-knocking in the 2010 campaign’s homestretch. Unionists engaged in huge numbers of worksite visits, plus even more phone-banking and leafleting, all to support worker-friendly candidates. But many of those politicians lost.

“We’ll revamp our program significantly, analyzing what worked and what didn’t,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at a post-election telephone press conference. “But our agenda doesn’t change: It’s jobs, jobs, jobs.”

But the mobilization rarely connected itself to organizing, and practical politicians look at labor’s numbers. They see unions represent 7.2% of private-sector workers, and 38% of public-sector workers. They see few high-profile organizing successes.

And the pols shrug labor off as yet another special interest, tagging unions now with the “government worker” brush, too. Many of the elected politicians, of both parties, have run against public workers not just in 2010, but for years before that.

The way to reverse that taint is to step up organizing the unorganized. Yet more unions than we care to name dropped organizing in favor of politics in 2009-2010.

There is one place where the inside game still can work, though: the regulatory agencies. For example, while the GOP plans to try to cut the budgets of domestic agencies – including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the rest of the Labor Department and other agencies dealing with labor issues – there is nothing to stop labor from proposing and lobbying for new stronger rules those agencies propose.

The number of worker enforcement agents may decline, due to budget cuts, but if the rules they enforce are tougher and the penalties higher, the deterrent is greater.

Another regulatory avenue would be similar to what happened with the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) and the National Mediation Board (NMB): TTD initiated the action that led NMB, which oversees labor-management relations on railroads and airlines, to change voting rules for union recognition elections in those industries.

Instead of unions having to get 50%+1 of all eligible voters at an airline or railroad to gain recognition, now they must get a majority of those workers casting ballots. That change may lead to union private-sector wins that were blocked before.

Finally, despite GOP victories in lower-level races – including the governorships of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio – don’t forget the states.

“At the legislative level, nothing will come out of Washington,” University of Illinois law professor Matthew Finkin told a recent seminar on the 75th anniversary of the National Labor Relations Act. “So what can be done, and where? That leaves the states.”

Illinois alone, he said, became the first state to order arbitration when small local government bodies and their unions reach impasse in bargaining and the first to recognize public workers’ right to strike. California tried to ban firms that get state funds from using those dollars for or against organizing drives, a form of company neutrality struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“And 13 states,” including ones like Tennessee, “require employer-employee health and safety committees” at plants, Finkin notes. “And the states tell the employers that ‘you have to deal with’ the issues they raise.”

“If there’s any prospect of legal movement, the states ought to be encouraged to act,” Finkin said – by union campaigns, lobbying and the bully pulpit.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.