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Election -
August 9, 2013


General News


Congressman Jerry F. Costello

The historic election of Barack Obama on November 4 and the significant widening of Democratic majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate promise a break with the policies of the Bush administration on many fronts. This is especially critical in economic and trade policy and labor relations.

The past eight years have seen an outright attack on labor rights, destroying the morale of union workers and undercutting the ability to earn a living wage. The Bush labor legacy is defined by stagnating wages, increasing income inequality, the off-shoring of thousands of jobs, the abrogation of project-labor agreements, efforts to strip overtime pay, and the imposition of work rules on the nation’s air traffic controllers that have led to a surge of retirements and concerns for the future of that workforce, and that is just skimming the surface.

A seriously troubling aspect of our current financial crisis is that some have taken it as an opportunity to blame unions for the loss of manufacturing jobs in this country. This has been a theme of the discussion about possible financial assistance to the big three automakers. What this neglects is that over the last century, it has been the labor movement that has helped secure worker rights and safety improvements that have made America the most dynamic economy in the world.

The 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, child labor laws and workplace safety regulations all came about because of the sacrifices of men and women who fought, in some cases literally, for those rights. The post-World War II economic boom and the American middle class were built on the good and fair wages that U.S. manufacturing provided, that allowed high-school educated workers to support a family and buy a home, a car and take an occasional vacation. This is the American dream, and the labor had a major role in bringing it to fruition.

Now, undoubtedly, the work and the workforce are changing. Improving technology and globalization, where the workforces of the world are more accessible to American firms, has greatly impacted the American worker. Both labor and management have and are facing this tougher reality, and are evolving. The latest United Auto Workers contract with the big three is an example of the changes in approach that are taking place.

But what we must not abandon is a commitment to the bedrock principle that the labor movement and the progress it represents are good for workers. As we prepare for the 111th Congress, we are hearing afresh the criticisms that legislation that enables workers a more even playing field to organize is bad for our economy. In particular, grave warning s are being issued regarding the Employee Free Choice Act, which passed the House of Representatives in March 2007 but failed to gain the 60 votes needed for a vote in the Senate.

This legislation would allow a union to become the exclusive bargaining representative for a group of employees when a majority of workers sign authorizations to this effect, which is possible under current law. While employers can recognize such a request now, they generally prefer to force an election, which ironically takes only 30% of worker support to call. The National Labor Relations Board must certify the signed authorizations as it does an election.

Labor believes through experience that management uses the election process to its advantage, and hence, is advocating for the change. The Employee Free Choice Act simply seeks to level the field for employees seeking union representation. As a strong supporter of collective bargaining, I have cosponsored and voted for this legislation.

There is nothing to fear here, and the greater point is that we should be using the tremendous opportunity that a fresh start gives us to foster an era of better labor/management relations. Given our current economic situation, it seems we have everything to gain from such an approach.

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