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Taking It To The Streets March 28, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Economy, European Union, G20, National Politics, Politics, Unions, Women's Issues.
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g201Tens of thousands of people representing trade unions, charities, environmental groups and churches marched on London today in advance of the G20 summit this week.  The protesters –  estimated at about 35,000 – are demanding jobs, economic justice, punishment for the bankers that caused the world economic meltdown, and protection for the environment.  Similar protests were held in Berlin and Paris.  The London protest takes place against the backdrop of a deepening global recession and growing public anger over bankers’ pay and the painful fallout from the crisis. The marchers are pushing for a more transparent and democratic economic recovery plan.

Though some anarchist groups are threatening violence, the marches so far have been peaceful – yet raucous.  Much of the protestors’ anger has been aimed at the United States; since Wall Street is the dominant world exchange, failures and excesses on Wall Street are viewed as the problem.  US Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday asked the thousands of protesters to give governments a chance to tackle the economic crisis.  “I would hope that the protesters give us a chance, listen to what we have to say and hopefully we can make it clear to them that we’re going to walk away from this G20 meeting with some concrete proposals,” Biden said at a news conference after a meeting of center-left politicians in Chile.  Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero added that  deep financial reforms were vital to avert a another financial meltdown.  “We have to democratize the economy, globalization and the financial system. How to do this? We already know: with information, transparency and responsibility,” Zapatero said.

This is why I am so fond of the European community.  They get out in the streets, they carry signs, they agitate for change and reforms.  The closest we’ve been to a populist rebellion since the 1999 Seattle WTO protests is getting pissed off over the AIG bonuses last week.  Even then, there was no large-scale organized protest.  We just had a bunch of really angry people calling radio talk shows and Twittering Rick Sanchez at CNN. 

Pathetic.

Why don’t Americans take to the streets?  The protest march is one of the foundations of Democracy – the people making sure their voices are heard.  Are we just too lazy?  Are we too tired?  What is bad enough to make us give a shit?  

I think Americans don’t protest because we’re afraid.  We’re afraid that if we take a couple days off to march on Washington we’ll lose our jobs.  We’re afraid that our bosses might spot us in the crowd on the evening news and we’ll lose our jobs.  We’re afraid that if we express an opinion different from that of our company, we’ll lose our jobs.  Too much of our life’s security is dependent upon our jobs in America.  Lose your job, lose your health insurance – and getting sick will surely send you to the poorhouse.  Lose your job, lose your house – and hope you have a car you can live in because our public housing and shelters are totally inadequate.  Lose your job, lose your car – and not only will you not have a place to crash, you won’t be able to get around to look for a job because our public transit systems suck.  Our fear controls every aspect of our lives – especially our economic decisions.

In European Social Democracies, people can protest because they have a safety net provided by their governments as their birthright.  THAT’S the issue we Americans need to take to the streets.

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!