Oct. 5, 2004 – As the presidential race heats up, labor organizers are denouncing President Bush, who they say has the worst labor record of any president in decades.
All major unions have endorsed Senator Kerry, despite the initial reluctance of unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which originally endorsed Governor Howard Dean in the primaries. The AFL-CIO is conducting a massive grassroots mobilization, with members knocking on doors and helping voters register across the country.
The Teamsters, which Bush tried unsuccessfully to court in the early days of his presidency, are also actively campaigning for Kerry. "We have an all-out effort in twenty swing states," said Caldwell, the Teamsters spokesperson, who nonetheless acknowledged that about 30 percent of its members are Republican. "We have to educate our members. We have 300 people in the field working on our membership non-stop to get them to vote."
While Kerry supports standard Democratic proposals - a raise in the minimum wage, increased regulation of dangerous factories, and more rights for workers trying to form unions - labor organizers say Bush has taken an extreme, right-wing stance on workersâ€™ issues.
"Heâ€™s trying to undo the New Deal," said Robert Kraig, state political director for SEIU Wisconsin. "Itâ€™s insane."
Many labor activists say free trade, which both Kerry and Bush have a record of supporting, does more harm to the wages and working conditions of Americans than any other policy.
Still, there is debate among workersâ€™ rights advocates about whether or not Kerry would be strong enough on workplace rights and safety issues. Advocates say Kerryâ€™s previous support for free trade agreements and the contributions he receives from major contributions are reason enough to be skeptical.
Some radical unions, including the International Workers of the World (IWW), and progressive labor organizers have decided not to endorse Kerry. These organizers argue that his support for NAFTA and unwillingness to push for radical change will bring about few meaningful reforms.
The economy has 1.7 million fewer private-sector jobs today than when Bush took office. In August, eight million people were officially looking for work in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Manufacturing has been especially hard-hit, suffering a loss of 2.7 million jobs. Numerous studies have shown that many of the new jobs are low-wage and concentrated in the service sector.
Bush has repeatedly stressed that the economy is no longer in a recession, and that more and more Americans are finding jobs. If elected to a second term, he promises to provide $500 million for his "Jobs for the 21st Century Initiative," which will "help educate and train highly-skilled American workers in schools and community colleges," according to the campaignâ€™s website.
Kerryâ€™s supporters say more job training does not address the main issue: the decline in the number of high-paying jobs available in the US. Kerry has promised to create millions of new jobs by providing tax credits to businesses that create manufacturing positions and ending tax breaks that encourage companies to move jobs overseas. He also supports additional investment in the nationâ€™s infrastructure, building new roads, bridges, schools and hospitals to create more jobs.
However, both candidates supported NAFTA, which by 2002 had resulted in the loss of over 870,000 jobs, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization that seeks to include the needs of low-income people in policy debates. Many labor activists say free trade, which both Kerry and Bush have a record of supporting, does more harm to the wages and working conditions of Americans than any other policy. Many progressive labor activists, some of whom have decided not to campaign for Kerry because of his pro-NAFTA position, say employers will continue to go overseas as long as free trade agreements encourage them to do so, regardless of tax incentives to stay in the United States.
During the campaign, Kerry has tried to distance himself from his earlier support for NAFTA, arguing that protections for workers contained within the agreement have not been adequately enforced. He now says he will place all trade deals under a 120-day review, but has not said he would revoke all or part of any deal. He has also voiced opposition to the Bush-backed expansion of NAFTA to five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic, insisting that the current proposal does not include adequate protection for workersâ€™ rights and the environment.
The Minimum Wage
Since he took office, Bush has opposed increasing the federal minimum wage, which has remained at $5.15 an hour for the past seven years. The president also supports a "state flexibility" plan, which would allow states with minimum wages of at least $5.15 to opt out of any future federal increases. The administration argues that raising the minimum wage would increase inflation and force employers to hire fewer workers. "It's very important that we have a wage policy which does not price people out of jobs," Bush said in a recent campaign speech.
In contrast, Kerry has proposed raising the minimum hourly wage to $7. He has a history of supporting wage increases, including a proposal in 2003 to increase the federal minimum wage to $6.65. "If a president can go out and fight for four years to provide over a trillion in tax cuts to the wealthiest people in America, we can fight for a few months to raise the minimum wage for the poorest people in America," Kerry said in a speech announcing the proposed increase.
Labor organizers, many of whom have advocated for a "living wage" significantly higher than $7 an hour, say Kerryâ€™s plan is nonetheless a good first step. "We fight wherever we can for a living wage," said Teamsters spokesperson Bret Caldwell. "Seven dollars an hour isnâ€™t going to get you where you need to be, but we believe that these are the right steps to take." Caldwell added that he hopes Kerry, if elected, would eventually set up a regular minimum wage adjustment, pegged to inflation or the cost of living.
Bush supported the recent controversial changes in overtime rules, while Kerry opposed them. The rules allow workers who earn less than $23,660 each year to automatically qualify for overtime pay, an increase over the current $8,060 limit. However, the rules also strip overtime protection from a wide range of administrative and white-collar workers. The Labor Department claims the rules will increase overtime protection for 1.3 million workers, while causing only 107,000 white-collar workers to lose eligibility. Labor organizers and leading Democratic members of Congress disagree, saying the rules will weaken overtime protection for six million workers.
Many of the Bush administrationâ€™s most sweeping and fundamental reforms are the result of changes in federal rules and regulations affecting worker safety, most of which do not require Congressional approval.
In March 2001, the administration repealed the nationâ€™s first repetitive motion injury rule, with the support of a Republican-dominated Congress. The rule, developed during the Clinton presidency, would have required employers to alter hazardous workplaces to prevent injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. Employers also would have been required to compensate workers who became disabled in the workplace. Kerry supported the injury rule, and voted against its repeal.
In August 2001, OSHA ended efforts to regulate semiconductor chemicals linked to miscarriages in pregnant workers. The agency's explanation, reported in The Washington Post, consisted of a single sentence: "OSHA is withdrawing this entry from the agenda at this time due to resource constraints and other priorities."
A month later, OSHA discarded a proposed rule from the Reagan administration that would have updated lists detailing what amounts of exposure to industrial chemicals would be dangerous for workers.
On New Yearâ€™s Eve, 2003, the Bush administration cancelled a rule that would have required hospitals, homeless shelters, prisons and drug treatment centers to test workers for tuberculosis and quarantine those infected with the disease - even though OSHA predicted the rule would prevent 135 deaths and 25,000 infections a year.
Instead of new rules, OSHA has promoted a voluntary program, which encourages companies to work with the government to improve safety, but does not focus on enforcing existing regulations. In most cases, unions are not allowed to participate.
According to a lengthy analysis of federal regulation, conducted by The Post, the Bush administration has eliminated nearly five times as many pending standards as it has implemented. The paper also found that the administration had not developed any major new health or safety rules. Since Bush took office, the analysis notes, federal agencies overall have about 25 percent fewer rules.
Card-check elections, in which a workplace becomes unionized if a majority of workers sign union cards, have become increasingly crucial to unionsâ€™ efforts to stave off further decline. Major trade federations like the recently merged Union of Needletraders, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International (HERE) told the Kansas City Star they organized 85 percent of their new members last year through card-check campaigns.
Bush supports the Secret Ballot Protection Act, which would ban card check elections altogether. The legislation is currently pending. Meanwhile, the Bush-appointed Republican majority on the National Labor Relations Board is reviewing the card-check process, and could propose significant restrictions.
Kerry supports an opposing bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would require employers to recognize the results of card-check elections. The bill would also triple back pay for workers whose employers fired them for union activity, and would prevent employers from requiring workers to attend anti-union meetings.
Kraig, the SEIU director, said that, although unions also suffered restrictions under the Clinton administration, the Bush White House has embarked on an unparalleled assault on union rights. "Theyâ€™ve set the tone so that employers have been even more aggressive," he said, adding that the post World War II "social contract" between workers and employers -- an indication of employerâ€™s willingness to concede some ground to unions -- was broken during Reaganâ€™s administration, and is now almost non-existent.
The Bush administration, Kraig said, believes "unions are a bad thing, and employers should not only resist them, but itâ€™s somehow better to have fewer family-supporting jobs. Their message is, â€˜You should pay as little wages as possible to be competitive.â€™"
Other prominent Bush efforts to weaken the influence of unions include: stripping collective bargaining rights from more than 230,000 workers in the newly-created division of the Homeland Security Department known as the Transportation Security Administration and in other federal agencies; banning new "project labor agreements" regulating working conditions and rules on federally-funded construction sites; and proposing that at least 850,000 federal jobs, traditionally high-paying and with good benefits, be privatized.
Kerry opposes all of these initiatives. In addition, he supported a bill to extend union rights to firefighters, police officers and other public safety officers in eighteen states that currently do not allow those workers to unionize.
The Debate Within the Labor Movement
However, some labor activists say Kerryâ€™s economic proposals do not go far enough in increasing wages and union rights. While even mainstream union officials, citing the candidateâ€™s support of NAFTA, admit that Kerry is not a perfect labor candidate, some radical activists are taking it a step further and declining to join his campaign.
Organizers for the Million Worker March, a radical labor demonstration in Washington, DC planned for mid-October, have refused to endorse Kerry. "Neither one of them is speaking to the issues, and the polls indicate that," said Clarence Thomas, the marchâ€™s co-chair. "If [Kerry] were, there wouldnâ€™t be a close race at all."
Although Thomas said, "There havenâ€™t been these kinds of attacks and assaults on the working class since the Great Depression," he argues that both Kerry and Bush are too controlled by corporate interests to seriously advocate for the rights of working people. "The Democratic Party doesnâ€™t want to see labor empowering itself. We can go door-to-door and do all the dirty work, but what do we get in return for that?" he asked.
According to Public Citizen, a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, industrial donors have contributed $41.5 million to Kerryâ€™s campaign as of this August, compared to $76.5 million to Bushâ€™s campaign.
A small number of progressives, frustrated with Kerryâ€™s stance on free trade, plan to vote for Nader instead. Nader advocates repealing NAFTA, creating a "Bill of Rights for Workers" including the right to organize a union and earn a living wage and abolishing the Taft-Hartley Act, a 1947 law that imposed restrictions on strikes and collective bargaining.
"Americaâ€™s working men and women have been abandoned by the corporate-dominated two-party system," Nader said in a statement released on Labor Day. "With every election, unions are pressed to donate and get out the vote to protect the political status quo. Yet the same candidates whom unions seek to reelect stand by passively, or actively support trade agreements which allow vast outsourcing of skilled jobs to third world countries where labor laws are much less protective if they exist at all."
Some labor organizers backing Kerry acknowledge their frustration over the candidateâ€™s stand on free trade, but say the stakes are simply too high to vote for a third-party candidate.
"I certainly understand progressives who want to take a principled stance and only want to support a candidate who exactly matches them on the issues," Kraig said. "But weâ€™re at a situation where the barbarians are at the gates and they are going to overrun the city. Thereâ€™s no limit to the damage [the Bush administration] can do. Itâ€™s unprecedented. Theyâ€™re trying to build a bridge to the 19th century."