AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka's speech at the National Press Club this week provides an important context for why we need to be paying attention—careful, specific attention—to the war on working people. Not just union workers, let's be clear. Although unions are often the most visible target (or scapegoat), this extends way beyond unions to an assault on the broader American middle class, and that's how Trumka approached it.
America's economic fate depends on us coming together to educate our children, to invest in our infrastructure, to face the threat of climate change and to reverse the yawning economic inequality that threatens our future.
Let me be specific. Unemployment stands at 9%. Underemployment is at 16%. Housing prices are falling, and foreclosures remain at historic highs. Economic growth is hovering at around 2% annually—not enough to put a dent in unemployment, especially as tax cuts expire, as the Recovery Act winds down—and state and local governments gear up for more deep cuts.
Yet instead of having a national conversation about putting America back to work to build our future, the debate here in Washington is about how fast we can destroy the fabric of our country, about breaking the promises we made to our parents and grandparents....
Why is our national conversation in such a destructive place? Not because we are impoverished. We have never been richer. The American economy has never produced as much wealth as it does today. But we feel poor because the wealth in our society has flowed to a handful among us, and they and the politicians who pander to the worst instincts of the wealthy would rather break promises to our parents and grandparents and deny our children a future than pay their fair share of taxes.
This war on workers is massive and comprehensive, stretching from education, school lunches, and child labor law to the Ryan plan to gut Medicare and Social Security, and hitting people of every age in between. Except, of course, the very (very) rich.
With that in mind, a few recent high and low points:
- Republicans are wailing and gnashing their teeth because the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had the temerity to file a complaint against Boeing for punishing workers who exercised their legal rights. Kimberly Freeman Brown of American Rights at Work explains:
The congressionally-mandated mission of the NLRB is to enforce the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, a law that protects workers’ rights and promotes a level playing field for workers and businesses. The agency’s nonpartisan mission has been accepted by Presidents and legislators on both sides of the aisle for the past 75 years.
When it comes to Boeing, the company’s own statements to employees and the media indicated that it was moving production in response to workers at its Washington state facility exercising rights guaranteed under the NLRA. Given that the NLRB’s role is to investigate potential violations of the law, the agency had little choice but to respond. Far from overreach, Lafe Solomon was just doing his job.
David Madland at the Center for American Progress finds others agreeing:
The Washington Post’s business columnist Steven Pearlstein argues that “given the public statements of Boeing officials, there is nothing radical about the NLRB’s decision to hold a hearing based on the complaint filed by the International Association of Machinists.” Similarly, Joe Marra, a former NLRB lawyer who now represents employers with the law firm Davis Grimm Payne & Marra, told The Seattle Times that he doesn't find the NLRB complaint surprising. “If my sympathies are anywhere, they are with management,” said Marra. “But I am also a realist. If I'm their labor lawyer, I'm cringing when they are saying that.”
In case you're in any doubt that the outrage over NLRB "overreach" is manufactured, Madland lays out some recent history:
One hundred and seventy-six House Republicans (75 percent of the caucus) voted to eliminate all funding for the NLRB, which would have prevented the enforcement of labor law for a year. The measure failed to pass the House, but H.R. 1, the continuing resolution passed by the House, included a $50 million reduction in the National Labor Relations Board’s budget, which if it had also passed the Senate would have forced NLRB staff members to be furloughed for 55 days, causing a backlog of cases to pile up.
Many congressional Republicans have also been trying to prevent union elections from being decided by a majority vote. Last year, the National Mediation Board did away with an absurd rule that, for union elections under the Railway Labor Act, counted workers who didn’t vote as having voted against unionization. House Republican leaders are now using legislation that reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration to try and reverse the board’s ruling, once again counting absent workers as votes against the union. Senate Republican leaders, during the debate over the Senate’s version of the FAA bill, attempted to attach an amendment that would have blocked workers at the Transportation Security Administration from unionizing.
And conservative members of Congress are apoplectic about the NLRB’s decision this week to sue the states of Arizona and South Dakota seeking to invalidate those states’ constitutional amendments that prohibit private-sector employees from choosing to unionize through a procedure known as card check. The lawsuit is unsurprising and it continues a long precedent of striking down state laws preempted by the National Labor Relations Act, which these same conservatives support when it is used to strike down laws increasing workers’ union rights.
Expect this war on the NLRB to continue for just as long as there's a Democrat in the White House.
- Rhee-watch: Fresh off a cheating scandal and an appearance at a DeVos-funded event with Scott Walker and Tom Corbett, former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee was John Kasich's special guest for a screening of charter school propaganda piece Waiting for Superman.
Note the governors she's making appearances with: Wisconsin's Scott Walker, Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett, Ohio's John Kasich. And to round out her partnerships with the worst of the worst, she's working with Florida's Rick Scott, Nevada's Brian Sandoval, and...well, consult your list of worst governors. They're probably big Rhee supporters.
This isn't incidental. It's about privatizing public education, reducing transparency and accountability in education, and driving down working conditions for teachers and support staff. That has an enormous impact right now on our middle class and an exponentially bigger one in the future as the kids trying to learn under this system grow up.
- New England brings a couple of pieces of good news. As we reported earlier in the week, Democrat Jennifer Daler won a special election to the New Hampshire House in one of the state's most Republican districts. That's one small drop in the oversized bucket of the New Hampshire House, but it deprives Speaker William O'Brien (R) of one of the votes he's trying to scrounge up to overturn Gov. John Lynch's (D) veto of a so-called right to work bill.
In Maine, the Bangor Daily News reports that two so-called right to work bills may face "a quiet death":
[Republican Speaker of the House Robert Nutting] said both bills were likely to be contentious, and the Republicans would meet in caucus to discuss the future of the proposals. Asked if the bills might die a quiet, procedural death, Nutting replied: “That certainly is an option. I have said from the very beginning that [right-to-work] wasn’t high on my list of things to do.”
Of course, as Trumka said, the bigger story in the war on workers is the constant backdrop of high unemployment, policies that place corporations over people, and massive inequality. But each of these individual stories contributes to the overall direction of that big story, representing an inch forward or backward.