By Krista Lee Hanson
The current economic crisis people are facing in this country—especially the millions of workers losing their jobs, the unemployed and underemployed who can’t find work, and the millions of families facing eviction from their home—offers plenty of opportunities for the change President-elect Obama has promised the nation.
Given that one of the root causes of this economic crisis is a growing divide between the rich and the working class in the United States, and the corresponding growth of corporate power, now is a time for our movements to fight for both economic rights (job creation, extension of unemployment benefits, expansion of Medicare, etc.) and political power. Particularly for the U.S. labor movement, increasing power will mean reversing the slow decline of membership that has marked the past four decades. Today only about 12 percent of the workers in the United States belong to a union, although more than half of all workers say they would join a union if they could.
But how to turn around decades of slow retraction given the continued attacks on unions and workers’ right to organize? The labor movement and allies in the social and economic justice movements are pushing hard on the House and Senate to change national labor law to fix some of its biggest holes. The proposed legislation, called the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), would increase the currently feeble sanctions against employers who fire workers for supporting a union and force arbitration of a union contract if an employer refuses to negotiate within a reasonable amount of time. Furthermore, the legislation would force a company to recognize a union once a majority of workers had signed a petition or card saying they wanted to join the union. These changes would dramatically increase workers’ power to form unions by taking away some of the critical tools employers use to drag out the unionization process while they harass and intimidate workers.
Clearly shifting the balance of power, even slightly, toward workers and unions will not be easy, nor will one legislative battle alone turn around this economic crisis. That is why grassroots groups like Jobs with Justice that bring together unions, community organizations, student activists, and progressive faith groups are working to connect the fight for EFCA to a broader fight for economic rights—a fight at the local, state, and national levels to increase social spending and the social safety net to create jobs, keep people in their homes, and reverse the spiraling cost of health care. In October and December of last year, community and labor activists around the country took to the streets as part of “People’s Bailout Now” weeks of action, supporting struggles to keep people in their jobs (or at least guarantee their severance pay, in the case of the Chicago Republic Windows and Doors workers who occupied their factory), stop evictions from foreclosed homes, and fight for public property like schools and shelters to remain public.
Building bridges between the battle for major labor law reform and the push for a massive economic stimulus package is critical for strengthening our movements. This work brings together groups of people with similar interests who often are working so hard on their own campaigns and issues that they don’t have the time or resources to connect. Early this year, and shortly after the Obama inauguration, Jobs with Justice will partner with labor unions, workers’ centers and organizations including domestic workers and day laborers, and other grassroots tenant and community rights organizations to hold town-hall style gatherings to define what a real economic recovery that impacts the people most affected by the current economic crisis would look like. We hope to come out of these forums with a grassroots proposal and the momentum behind it to secure both the right to organize and the basic right of all people to economic stability. Those changes nationally—together with the critical international solidarity work of ending U.S. military, political, and economic intervention abroad—are the kind of changes the labor movement and our allies need to demand of an administration that has raised people’s hope for change.