News & Events

Cautious optimism for labor from the new administration

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
February 2009 Edition

By Tom Breslin
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

Now that the presidential election is over, workers across the country have a great deal to look forward to. We expect that this new administration will be friendlier to us working people.

The president’s nominee for secretary of labor, Congresswoman Hilda Solis of California, has drawn positive reviews from unions and progressives. She has pledged to “work to strengthen our unions.” She has a strong record on a variety of issues affecting workers— from labor law enforcement to immigration. No matter how she performs, she will be an improvement over her predecessor, Elaine Chao, who acted more like the “secretary of management” than the secretary of labor.

There is a great deal of hope that the Employee Free Choice Act will pass and be signed by President Obama, who has been a supporter in the past and has expressed continued support during the campaign. Similarly, there is reason to believe that presidential appointments to the National Labor Relations Board will reverse the course of anti-worker and anti-union decisions and policies over the last eight years and that the NLRB will finally live up to its mandate of upholding the NLRA and protecting the rights of workers to organize and bargain with their employer.

There will be judicial appointments to consider— from Supreme Court justices to federal judges—who will decide issues relating to workplace and labor laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act and other issues affecting working people. There has been speculation that as many as three Supreme Court justices may retire in the next presidential term.

In short, there is a great deal to look forward to in the first days of the new administration. I look forward to all these changes as much as anyone else.

Why then don’t I share the excitement over these potentially positive developments for working people? Aren’t these changes going to “save the labor movement?”

First of all, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act is not guaranteed. If you assume that senators will vote along party lines, there is not a sufficient majority of Democrats in the Senate to stop debate on the bill and bring it to the floor for a vote.

Even if it passes, no one should be under the illusion that employers will not come up with imaginative means to circumvent provisions of the new law. They are working on those strategies already. I recently attended a conference where a management attorney was predicting the demise of western civilization if Employee Free Choice Act is signed into law.

Similarly, we should not depend on the appointment of sympathetic NLRB board members to help working people. Even in the best of times, the NLRB has not been the friend to workers that many had hoped. It is more likely that after eight years of coming down on the side of management that some think that anything would be better than under the previous administration. The length of time it takes to get a ruling from the NLRB, even a favorable one, is lengthy and—more importantly—takes the issue out of the hands of the members while they wait for someone else to decide.

If we really believe in strengthening our local bargaining units, that is what we should spend our energy on instead of relying only on the NLRB, changes in labor law and a more worker-friendly political climate. We should concentrate on utilizing the methods we already know to strengthen our local units and make us more effective.

Depending solely on a changed political climate in Washington, D.C. and the hope that it will “trickle down” to the rest of us is a recipe for failure. We should not just depend on others, especially those in the federal government, to do for us what we should already be doing for ourselves. If there is work to be done at the local and state levels, that is no substitution to having members and leaders work together to ensure that our needs and goals are met, especially in these uncertain economic times.

There is no substitute for strategies like mapping and internal organizing to strengthen the local unit, energize the members and implement a planning process designed to make the local unit, and in turn, the MNA stronger and more effective.

The MNA Labor School sponsors classes dedicated to these activities and other strategies designed to build a stronger, more visible and viable local unit. Contact your regional office or check the MNA Web site for dates, times and locations for these classes.