Unions to aim for labor law, immigration reform

WASHINGTON – For organized labor, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says, reforming labor law to help balance the scales between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining, will always be labor’s number one legislative priority – until it passes.

For the Service Employees, comprehensive immigration reform tops the list, General Counsel Judy Scott says. That’s an important cause, she adds, on humanitarian grounds. But it also reflects SEIU’s concentration on organizing low-paid, often immigrant workers – many of whom leave in fear of deportation.

But after those top two priorities, labor’s legislative agenda for the new 113th Congress is very much up in the air.

One reason is what was left undone, by the lame-duck session of the 112th Congress, ostensibly called to work out a compromise to prevent the nation from going over the “fiscal cliff” of tax hikes, an end to jobless benefits, an increase in payroll taxes and cuts in defense and domestic programs – along with a tax hike on the rich.

Labor spent December, during the lame duck, campaigning for the tax hikes for the rich, and to preserve Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and avoid deep cuts in other domestic programs. The ruling Republicans wanted exactly the opposite.

If that GOP combination kicks in and sucks billions of dollars out of the economy, throwing the U.S. back into recession, labor must re-juggle its legislative priorities to concentrate – even more than before – on jobs, jobs, jobs.

But if Congress came up with a solution, then labor could turn its attention to other issues, with job-creation legislation still at the fore. But before any or all of those causes can be tackled, labor must deal with the second factor that hamstrung almost all action the last two years: The filibuster.

The Republican-run House is still expected to be a graveyard for worker-backed and pro-worker legislation since the GOP’s Radical Right Tea Party wing runs the show there. But with labor playing a huge role in re-electing Democratic President Barack Obama and expanding the pro-worker Senate Democratic majority, unions and their allies expect progress – which puts pressure on the House to acquiesce. The filibuster derails any such plans (see separate story).

The new Senate is apparently headed for a showdown on plans to curb the inordinate use of filibusters to block virtually everything. As of early December, 389 filibusters and filibuster threats had been launched in the 112th Congress. They blocked everything from National Labor Relations Board nominations to, in the prior Democratic-run 111th Congress, the Employee Free Choice Act, the labor law reform legislation.

They also blocked jobs bills, equal pay for equal work, immigration legislation and much more. The filibuster plague became so bad that curbing – if not ending – the scourge of such minority rule became a key cause of the Communications Workers in particular and labor in general.

CWA President Larry Cohen helped stitch together a “fix the Senate” coalition, including the Auto Workers and allied progressive groups, to put pressure on lawmakers to end the situation where a minority of 41 senators can bring everything to a halt. “This is not what democracy looks like,” Cohen says of the GOP minority’s filibuster abuse.

If and when the filibuster roadblock is overcome – and various proposals are flying around about how to overcome it – other union legislative agenda items includea push for equal pay for equal work, again, by the Coalition of Labor Union Women. The filibuster threat killed it in 2012. It got a Senate majority, but needed 60 votes.

National Nurses United is campaigning for a tax on financial transactions. The tax would discourage the speculation that led to the Great Recession, force the financial institutions to pay for the damage their finagling and fraud caused, and bring billions of dollars into the Treasury for people programs and to cut the deficit, NNU says.

Transportation and building trades unions will seek a longer highway-mass transit bill. Congress approved a 2-year bill, not the normal six years. A six-year, multi-billion-dollar measure would put people back to work on infrastructure, at a time when officially 12 percent of construction workers are jobless. Union leaders say it’s double that.

CWA could resume the campaign to extend broadband coverage to the entire country, boosting telecommunications jobs and Internet availability.

The Letter Carriers and other postal unions will resume their campaign for a permanent solution to the Postal Service’s financial ills to eliminate the multi-billion-dollar prepayment of future retirees’ health care expenses. The union also wants to open USPS to marketing more goods. USPS wants to fire workers, instead.

The Amalgamated Transit Union could resume pushing a cause dumped in the bargaining over the last highway-mass transit bill: Letting federal mass transit funds go for bus drivers’ pay as well as for bus purchases, in cities and metro areas with more than 250,000 people.

Photo: For the Service Employees, immigration law reform is a top priority this year.   Progress Ohio/Flickr


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.