By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; A17
For American labor, year one of Barack Obama's presidency has been close to an unmitigated disaster.
Labor's primary priority -- the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) -- died when the Democrats lost their 60-vote majority in the Senate. Labor's normal priority -- a functioning National Labor Relations Board -- also seems out of reach, with Republicans on Tuesday blocking the appointment of Obama nominee Craig Becker (that's why Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown scurried down to Washington last week to take his seat). Other key legislation for which labor has lobbied, including health-care reform and financial regulations, languishes in the Senate.
For the unions, the Senate's inability to pass EFCA is devastating and galling. Democratic senators had developed a compromise proposal that would have jettisoned the controversial "card check" process -- by which unions could be organized without a secret ballot -- in favor of expediting the election process (so that management couldn't delay for months, or even years, employees' votes on whether to unionize) and stiffening the penalties for violating the rules that govern election conduct.
The compromise had a shot at winning all 60 Democratic votes. The unions, which spent more than $300 million in the 2008 elections on Democrats' behalf, wanted a vote on EFCA last year, but Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked them to wait until health reform had passed. (Their requests for confirmation votes on NLRB appointees were similarly delayed.)
By my count, this marks the fourth time in the past half-century that labor's efforts to strengthen workers' ability to organize have been deferred by the Democratic presidents and the heavily Democratic Congresses they supported. In 1965, about the only piece of Great Society legislation not enacted was the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act provision that gave states the power to block unions from claiming as members all the employees in workplaces where they had won contracts. In 1979, as American management was beginning to invest heavily in union-busting endeavors, the first effort to reform labor law failed to win cloture in the Senate by one vote as President Jimmy Carter stood idly by. In 1994, President Bill Clinton responded to a similar labor-backed effort by appointing a commission to recommend changes in labor law to the next Congress -- which turned out to be run by Newt Gingrich. And last year, by asking his labor supporters to wait, Obama ensured -- unintentionally, of course -- that the next effort to revive organizing must wait until the next overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.
Meanwhile, the percentage of American workers in unions steadily declines. During the 1965 effort, more than 30 percent of private-sector workers belonged to unions. In 1979, the share was 21 percent; in 1994, 11 percent; and in 2009, just 7.2 percent. When the next chance to rewrite labor law comes around, the rate of private-sector unionization could be down to trace elements.
What will life be like in an America with almost no private-sector unions or collective bargaining? We had a glimpse of that during George W. Bush's presidency, in which the unionization rate was already so low that median household incomes declined even as gross domestic product rose. It's also apparent that a deunionized private sector won't readily support -- politically or economically -- a unionized or expansive public sector. In 1960, when California Gov. Pat Brown created the nation's foremost public sector -- the greatest university systems, freeways and aqueducts -- it was paid for by the nation's most vibrant, and one of its most highly unionized, private-sector economies. California's private sector is nowhere near as vibrant or unionized today -- a major reason its public sector is crumbling.
In a deunionized America, it's not clear who, if anyone, will fund campaigns such as those the unions funded this year, for universal health care and financial regulation. It's also not clear who, if anyone, will persuade working-class whites to vote Democratic. (Over the past half-century, white male union members have voted Democratic at a rate 20 percentage points higher than their nonunion counterparts.)
No nation has ever been home to a middle-class majority absent a sizable labor movement. In their failure to advance labor's prospects, the Democrats condemn themselves to a future of fewer Democratic voters and their nation to a future of mass downward mobility.
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American workers suffered a loss of a different kind Friday with the death of Beth Shulman from complications of a brain tumor. In her 2003 book, "The Betrayal of Work," and throughout her life, Beth eloquently championed the interests of the tens of millions of Americans who barely make enough to get by. Her voice, and her warmth, will be missed.