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Working In These Times

Monday, Sep 10, 2012, 1:18 pm

Dems on Labor: Warm, But Fuzzy

BY Josh Eidelson

(Steve Bott / Flickr / Creative Commons)

At last week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Democrats ratified a platform which once again commits to strengthen and defend workers’ right to organize. As before, the platform’s language on unions contrasts sharply with its Republican counterpart. But it offers fewer firm commitments than the documents ratified by Democrats in 2008, or by Republicans last week.

In a section titled "Standing Up For Workers," the new platform celebrates unions for helping to “build the greatest middle class the world has ever known,” and for winning standards like the 40-hour workweek and programs like Medicare, “the cornerstones of middle class security.” It describes “the right to organize and collectively bargain” as “a fundamental American value.” Whereas the GOP platform urged Governors and legislators to follow the lead of those who’ve push to limit collective bargaining, this one says, “We oppose the attacks on collective bargaining that Republican governors and state legislatures are mounting in states around the country.” It also pledges to “fight for collective bargaining rights” for public employees, including teachers, nurses, and police officers.

As to how it will accomplish this, however, the platform is more vague than its 2008 predecessor--and neglects to address some labor issues that have arisen in the intervening years. Here's a point-by-point comparison:

  • Where 2008’s platform pledged to “fight to pass the Employee Free Choice Act” (the anti-union-busting law that labor has been clamoring for), 2012’s is more vague: “We will fight for labor laws that provide a fair process for workers to choose union representation, that facilitate the collective bargaining process, and that strengthen remedies for violations of the law.” Those three clauses could represent the key provisions of EFCA: requiring companies to recognize unions which sign up majorities of workers (“card check”), mandating arbitration when negotiations on an initial contract drag on, and increasing the penalties for illegal union-busting. Or they could represent a weaker alternative. The lack of reference to EFCA may reflect the opposition of conservative Democrats to the bill. Or it could reflect a sense that--having been blocked by said conservative Democrats in the 111th Congress--EFCA is dead for good, and labor will rally around something else.
  • "Standing Up For Workers" omits another labor law reform that appeared in the 2008 equivalent: banning companies from “permanently replacing” (de facto firing) workers who strike. Under current law, unless a strike is found to be motivated by illegal Unfair Labor Practices by management, permanent replacement is legal. Strengthening the right to strike was a centerpiece of unsuccessful labor law reform efforts as recently as the 1990s, and some scholars argue that labor erred in shifting focus to the right to organize (permanent replacement was not part of EFCA). Four years ago, the Democratic Platform still pledged to “fight to ban the permanent replacement of striking workers, so that workers can stand up for themselves without worrying about losing their livelihoods.” This year’s does not mention the issue.
  • The 2008 platform affirmed the Democratic Party’s support for the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act (which guaranteed fair wages for federal public-works contracts), stating that Democrats opposed its suspension following Hurricane Katrina and support “broad application” to “all federal projects.” Davis-Bacon commits the federal government to “prevailing wage” standards on construction contracts, making it easier for union contractors to compete with non-union companies. While Davis-Bacon never appeared in the 2008 Republican platform, this year the GOP platform opposes it, and the Democratic one doesn’t mention it.
  • The platform does not discuss the future of the Postal Service, whose functions its GOP counterpart says Congress should explore partially privatizing.
  • The platform does not address some of unions’ disappointments over the past four years: language in the FAA reauthorization which makes it harder to trigger a union election under the Railway Labor Act; an agricultural child labor regulation withdrawn by the Department of Labor; or the choice not to implement a high-road contracting policy.
  • The platform omits "important benchmarks" for trade agreements from the 2008 document, including that they not "stop the government from protecting the environment, food safety, or the health of its citizens" or "give greater rights to foreign investors than to U.S. investors." Critics charge that, in negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, the Administration has violated the old platform's pledge to "strive to achieve" these benchmarks. The TPP is specifically mentioned in the new text, alongside different, looser language on some of the benchmarks: "We remain committed to finding more markets for American-made goods--including using the Trans-Pacific Partnership between the United States and eight countries in the Asia-Pacific, one of the most dynamic regions in the world--while ensuring that workers' rights and environmental standards are upheld, and fighting against unfair trade practices."

The new platform is also shaped by Obama’s position as the incumbent president. Where the old one pledged “pro-worker” appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and National Mediation Board, and backed overturning their “many harmful decisions” under President Bush, the new one credits Obama with appointing members “who understand the importance of standing up for workers.” The old platform pledged to “end the exploitative practice of employers wrongfully misclassifying workers as independent contractors”; the new one commits the administration to “continue its fight” against the practice. The party committed in 2008 to “adopt and enforce comprehensive safety standards”; it pledges now to “continue” to do so. The 2008 promise to raise and index the minimum wage remains verbatim. The section’s new language also celebrates Obama’s auto bailout, and–in an apparent reference to three 2009 executive orders–says he “rolled back harmful labor policies designed to undermine collective bargaining rights.”

The platform is, however, more specific when it comes to anti-union bills the party pledges to “vigorously oppose,” including “Right to work” (banning union contracts which require workers represented by unions to pay representation costs), “paycheck protection” (banning public unions spending spending dues money on politics unless workers specifically opt-in), and “Save Our Secret Ballot” (banning employers from recognizing unions without a Labor Board election).

As in 2008, other sections of the Democratic platform back comprehensive immigration reform and a federal paid sick leave requirement. Since 2008, the Party has added a pledge to support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (“because people should not be fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identity”).

After being ratified on Tuesday, the Democratic platform was amended on Wednesday to re-insert words the party had been slammed for removing since 2008. Labor provisions were not among them.

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet. After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years. His website is http://www.josheidelson.com. Twitter: @josheidelson E-mail: "jeidelson" at "gmail" dot com.

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