Shades of 1933: Unions get the bully pulpit

Related video: "Employee Forced Choice Act"
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Progs herald end to Era of Prosperity

The election of Barack Obama serves as a turning point for organized labor — the likes not seen since Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933 during America's worst economic crisis.

So believes historian and sociologist Harvey J. Kaye, an expert in labor issues at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. "In my entire life — however much I thought that 1968 was important, or 1980 — I don't think I've ever felt that an election was as crucial as this one," said Kaye, 59.

While the country shifted to conservatism in the past three decades, union membership steadily declined. Among those ushering an anti-union climate were President Ronald Reagan, who fired federal air traffic controllers after they went on strike, Kaye said.

What's at stake now is whether the labor movement can make a comeback. Union leaders have reason to think there is a chance now that voters have sent a Democrat to the White House and the party has broader control of the House and Senate. A bill that would loosen American labor laws waits in Congress.

Related video: "Employee Forced Choice Act"

The Employee Free Choice Act makes it easier for organizers to talk about unionization in the workplace and penalizes companies that fire or harass workers for being interested in organizing.

The timing of the legislation comes as the country returns to a period where the public realizes people need higher wages to afford their living expenses, said Andrew Kersten, a history professor at UWGB.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this year that the percentage of workers belonging to a union in 2007 was 12.1 percent, an 8-percentage point drop since 1983.

"Republicans often preach they're the party of less government, except in instances where it challenges organized capital," Kersten said.

He sees parallels between today's mortgage crisis and the Great Depression, where the central problem was the lack of consumer spending.

Roosevelt responded by introducing laws so workers could seek wage increases and secure their jobs.

Unions, which were active this campaign season, are looking for the payback.

"We need the bully pulpit in the White House," said Bruce Raynor, president of Unite Here, who campaigned for Democrats in Wisconsin a few days before the general election.

"But we also need an activist Congress that is going to intervene, put people back to work and rebuild America's infrastructure, create good jobs and support working families. That's only a job the federal government can do," he said.

Unite Here, a part of the Change to Win federation, represents some 500,000 workers in textile, hotel, casino, food services and industrial laundry. It deployed 100 full-time workers to Wisconsin and also zeroed in on Nevada and Virginia. The three voted Democratic.

Wisconsin was fertile ground for the unions' message. In the Fox Valley, the closing of Kimberly's NewPage paper plant galvanized mill workers.

Raynor believes it is the perfect storm: The median wage in the state is almost the same as it was in 1979. Twenty percent of the workers who had jobs earned less than the poverty wage.

"Working families in this state desperately need a new deal, a new administration that is going to worry about workers," he said.



Blueskyboris said...

Sweet. Labor gets the right to exercise its first admendment rights again. Now maybe we'll regain our right to assemble to protest secret government meetings without the buffer zones and no approach zones of the Patriot Act state. But I'm sure this website is for all of this, because I'm sure this website is 100% for the first amendment. One couldn't claim to be a Republican and only half support the right to assemble or the half support the right to organize. Could they?

Anonymous said...

Saul Alinsky had a very low opinion of union organizers.If Obama wants to be a success (get re-elected) he will pick his spots and avoid a domestic WWIII over organized labor. The Socialists have already predicted he will sell out labor on EFCA.

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