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Hope for Labor Dies in Congress March 25, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Democrats, Economy, National Politics, Politics, Republicans, Unions.
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efca77For the past few weeks I have been watching the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) – or “card check” legislation – with growing dismay.  It seemed as if all the talking heads, all the newspaper editorial boards, and even agents of our government (the US Chamber of Commerce) had aligned themselves in opposition to EFCA.  They stood on their podiums and – wrongly – hollered that the EFCA would take a way worker’s rights to Union elections.  They wrung their hands and said that the last thing we needed in our faltering economy was unionization.  Without any actual cases in recent history to back them up – they said that card check would lead to UNION intimidation of workers while the poor, helpless employers could only sit back and do nothing.

Well, today they got what they wanted.  The EFCA was killed – murdered at the hands of Senator Arlen Spector (R) of Pennsylvania.  Spector, who was the only Republican to vote in support of the bill in 2007, announced today that he will oppose the bill, thereby denying the 60-vote Senate ‘supermajority” required to hold off the filibuster.  “The problems of the recession make this a particularly bad time to enact Employees Free Choice legislation,” Specter said.  He suggested instead that Congress take up revisions to the National Labor Relations Act.  “If efforts are unsuccessful to give labor sufficient bargaining power through amendments to the NLRA, then I would be willing to reconsider Employees’ Free Choice legislation when the economy returns to normalcy,” he said.

What Spector didn’t mention is that he is facing a particualrly tough reelection bid in 2010 and THAT is probably the primary reason for hias new opposition.  The Senator, who just turned 79 in February, is facing a potential Republican primary challenge from former Congressman Pat Toomey.  Two polls released today show Spector trailing Toomey by a significant margin and show PA Republicans expressing a desire for a different candidate.  Spector has never been a tower of strength and conviction – he changes his positions frequently, depending on whatever way the wind is blowing – but he always has been a good Republican soldier.  I predict he will get his party’s nomination for Senator, but Pennsylvania is becoming bluer and he may lose ot a Democrat.  Democratic seante-watchers think he is vulnerable.

The rhetoric that business and its interest have employed to defeat the EFCA is stunning.  Most egregious is the falsehood that the EFCA would eliminate worker’s rights to a secret-ballot election.  The legislation does nothing of the sort.  It does, however, give workers the option of certifying a Union and requesting collective bargaining if 51% of employees sign union membership cards. 

The reason that most labor and union supporters believe that card check legislation is necessary is because the current “guarantee’ of the Union election gives management untold time and access to the employees to defeat the Union.  Employees are summoned into secret one-on-one meetings; they are threatened with being fired, with their jobs moving overseas, with the loss of insurance and pension benefits (if they even have them).  Studies by economists such as Cornell University’s Kate Bronfenbrenner indicate that employers routinely try to intimidate workers–and frequently violate the law–in the run-up to NLRB union elections. Bronfenbrenner’s research found high levels of corporate interference and intimidation. In those weeks leading up to the election, employers often use the time to engage in coercive anti-union campaigning to influence workers not to vote for the union. During this period, workers face harassment, intimidation, and the risk of being fired simply for trying to exercise their right to organize.   A study released this month by the Center for Economic Policy Research found similar rates of intimidation. In Dropping the Ax: Illegal Firings During Union Election Campaigns, CEPR found a steep rise in illegal firings of pro-union workers in the 2000s relative to the last half of the 1990s: 1 in 5 union organizers or activists can expect to be fired as a result of their activities in a union election campaign. Since 2000, illegal firings have marred over 1 in 4 NLRB-sponsored union elections, reaching 30 percent of elections in 2007, the study finds.  (Stats reprinted from http://www.southernstudies.org/2009/03/worker-suppression.html).  I have been unable to find a single recent (within 3 years) report of Union intimidation of workers, though I have found plenty of news stories saying it would happen if EFCA is passed.

Interestingly, the threat of the EFCA legislation prompted Starbucks, Costco, and Whole Foods to form the Committee for a Level Playing Field  this week.  The business group advanced the idea as preserving the secret ballot election, but ensuring firm time limits were in place in which to hold elections and would allow union organizers access to workers during working hours.  The secret twiost is that the company could announce and hold its own union de-certifying election at any time.  So, if they didn’t like the way bargaining was going, they would announce that their store might have to close or find another way to subtly threaten the employees, then vote to decertify the Union.  As Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa – an EFCA supporter – put it, “This is just a rule written by management for the benefit of management.” 

Amen, brotha!


Fair and Unbalanced February 17, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Barack Obama, Democrats, National Politics, Politics, popular culture, Republicans.
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fox_20news_20logoWhat is it that has the talking heads at Fox News spinning lately?  Apparently, it is the possibility of reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

As a journalism student in the early 1980’s (shout-out to the University of Scranton!), one of the first tenents of broadcast communications that I learned was the Fairness Doctrine.  A provision of FCC regulation enacted in 1949, the doctrine simply stated that since the airwaves were a public trust, persons with licenses to broadcast over those airwaves had to operate them in the public interest.  The FCC wanted to ensure that “a broadcast licensee shall afford reasonable opportunity for discussion of conflicting views on matters of public importance.”

From the time of its inception, broadcasters argued that the doctrine infringed on free speech; that it allowed the government to have editorial control over content.  In Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC in 1969, however, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the rule.  Supreme Court Justice Byron White wrote: “There is no sanctuary in the First Amendment for unlimited private censorship operating in a medium not open to all.”  Indeed, some have found that the Fairness Doctrine actually preserved free speech.  In a Washington Post column (1/31/94), the Media Access Project (MAP), a telecommunications law firm that supports the Fairness Doctrine, addressed the First Amendment issue: “The Supreme Court unanimously found [the Fairness Doctrine] advances First Amendment values. It safeguards the public’s right to be informed on issues affecting our democracy, while also balancing broadcasters’ rights to the broadest possible editorial discretion.”

Enter Ronald Reagan and his merry band of deregulators in his second term.  Reagan’s FCC Chairman, Mark Fowler, vehemently disagreed with the principle that broadcasters had a unique role in preserving public discourse or a responsibility to serve as a public trustee.   The Fairness Doctrine was weakened throughout the 1980’s and formally repealed in 1987.

So what has the demise of the rule meant and why are so many lining up for and against it?  According to Conservative talker Rush Limbaugh, the death of  the Fairness Doctrine allowed for shows like his to gain a foothold in the radio talk market and dominate it.  This certainly seems like it could be the case, though the FCC relaxation on ownership of radio stations in the 1990s has much more to do with it.  The corporate entities, like Clear Channel Communications, that own stations in the majority of radio markets prefer conservative formats because they better serve the corporate interests.  I’m sure that Clear Channel doesn’t want a bunch of lefties talking about re-regulation, limits on media ownership, equal access, and balance – not good for the bottom line.

There is a growing movement on Capitol Hill and among liberal/progressive circles to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.  After twenty-odd years of hearing nothing but right-wing talk on the radio, many on the left are hungry for changes that would restore some balance to the debate.  So, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity are all lining up against any move to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in any form.  Even  on the left, there is diverse opinion on the issue.  Progressive talker Ed Shultz is against it.  He believes that the market place will decide; if it is in the interest of the station owner to broadcast progressive talk – ie. by selling advertising – then he will.  He will produce shows that fill the demand.  The problem with this approach is, again, the ownership of the stations.  Often times, progressive/liberal talk radio was put on in minor markets – then formats would be abruptly changed and the station would disappear.  Owners did not allow enough time to grow audiences and therefore, did not sell advertising, spawning the myth that liberal/progressive talk is not financially viable.

On the other side of the coin is progressive talk show host Bill Press, who engaged in a lively debate on this issue with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly yesterday (though use if the word “debate” is debatable – Kelly just seemed to want to shout Press down).  In Press’ opinion, and in mine, the airwaves ARE a public trust and broadcasters must operate within the public interest.  It is in the public’s interest to hear a diversity of opinion on matters of importance, be they local or national. 

Radio plays an important part – still – in the shaping of public opinion.  If it did not, Rush Limbaugh would not be the de facto head of the Republican party.  It is important for liberals and progressives to be able to speak their side in matters that will be facing the nation in the coming months; more bank bail-out money, mortgage rescues, health care reform, and the American Free Choice Act (card check law).  If they only voices America hears are ones from the extreme fringe of an extreme party, then support for these prudent and necessary initiatives will be lacking.  You could see it when support for President Obama’s economic stimulus went south after the right-wing talkers had their way with it, even though the bill would help a great deal working and middle class Americans.  They did not hear progressive and liberal viewpoints when making their decisions.

As Senator Chuck Schumer said when asked about the Fairness Doctrine, “critics of the Fairness Doctrine are being inconsistent.  The very same people who don’t want the Fairness Doctrine want the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] to limit pornography on the air. I am for that… But you can’t say government hands off in one area to a commercial enterprise but you are allowed to intervene in another. That’s not consistent.”

We do have a Progressive talk station in Buffalo now, WKBW 1520.  After many years of suffering through local and national right-wing talk, I am wallowing in happiness.  But it makes some people VERY unbalanced. 

And that’s a good thing.