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This month's column began as an obituary for the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, with the culprits responsible being extremists who used the Senate's filibuster rules. Another right-wing federal court ruled that the president's recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board were illegal because those Senate extremists had come up with a rule whereby even when they are not in Washington, they never lower the gavel to recess, claiming they are always in session. This issue is now pending before the Supreme Court.
What the extremists did by blocking presidential appointees was deny the National Labor Relations Board a quorum to rule on any alleged violations of the Wagner Act, making labor law unenforceable. Though it has been weakened over the years by corporate union busting, which was given a green light with Ronald Reagan's destruction of the air traffic controllers union 30 years ago, and by deep-pocketed corporations litigating before pro-corporate judges, the Wagner Act remains the law of the land.
Today many people are ignorant of what this law actually says and how important it was. To quote from Section 1: "The denial by some employers of the right of employees to organize and the refusal by some employers to accept the procedure of collective bargaining leads to strikes and other forms of industrial strife or unrest, which have the intent or the necessary effect of burdening or obstructing commerce. ...
"The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries. ...
"It is declared to be the policy of the United States to eliminate the causes of certain substantial obstructions to the free flow of commerce and to mitigate and eliminate these obstructions when they have occurred by encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining and by protecting the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection."
This was and is the law of the land. We now live in a country where the majority responsible to uphold the law of the land-in the House of Representatives, the Senate and likely the Supreme Court-does not believe in these rights and feels no obligation to enforce the law. If it were not for the efforts of labor and other progressive voices fighting for President Barack Obama's re-election, working people could be facing the opposition of all three branches of government.
Too many officials in all branches of government seem to be ignorant of the fact that the largest economy built the world's largest middle class through the union movement. From the eight-hour day to Social Security, from Medicare to worker safety, from decent wages to civil rights, progress has not happened without labor.
For now an agreement has been reached in the Senate on use of the filibuster for presidential appointees, and it looks as if we actually will have a functioning National Labor Relations Board, as well as a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But I predict this agreement will not last very long, maybe only weeks, and it does not apply to legislation.
As for legislation, labor continues to fight on many fronts. One current issue is the doubling of interest on student loans to 6.8 percent for those who qualify for federal college assistance, with an unjust compromise in the works. This is occurring while the Fed lends money to the banks and the likes of JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon at 0.75 percent interest.
A labor issue receiving nationwide attention is a living wage of $12.50 per hour, passed for large retailers in Washington, D.C. This protects the small, mom-and-pop businesses. Walmart is screaming bloody murder and threatening not to open at least three of the six superstores planned. The mayor of D.C. and District Council must stand their ground.
Walmart's low-wage business model not only depresses wages in the U.S. but undercuts wages and worker safety around the globe, as evidenced by deaths in horrific factory fires and a building collapse and by wages as low as $40 a month for 60-hour workweeks offshore. The middle class will not be rebuilt while Walmart is America's largest employer with over 1.3 million workers-and averages more than $6,000 per employee in taxpayer subsidies, according to the Economic Policy Institute-with at least a million of its workers lacking health insurance.
Paying the average rent for housing in Washington, D.C., would require working 140 hours per week at Walmart wages. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the $12.50-an-hour wage would cost Walmart shoppers an average of 49 cents more per shopping trip.
This issue is of special interest to Rochester labor because leadership on the legislation is coming from Josh Williams, president of the D.C. Labor Council and a friend of many of us in Rochester labor circles, and his head staff person, Chris Garlock. Chris was the first full-time staff person for the Rochester Labor Council, and his father, retired college professor Jon Garlock, heads our Education Committee and the annual Labor Film Series at the George Eastman House.
Among many other labor initiatives, one of our highest priorities has been immigration reform. To get legislation past Republicans in the Senate, the bill was much watered down with a 13-year path to citizenship and tens of billions in spending to militarize the border and protect us from exploited workers. Democrats give much credit to Sen. Marco Rubio, but he is a hypocrite. Because of the Cold War, his Cuban parents were immediately legal, given a fast and direct path to citizenship. This preferential treatment for Cuban refugees was going on while immigrants from other countries were denied entry and sent back to prison, torture or murder by much worse dictators than Fidel Castro-psychopaths like Trujillo, Somoza, Pinochet and Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, to name a few.
Just a few years ago, both parties realized that rounding up 12 million people and deporting them was an absurd idea. Now we will give billions to the usual defense contractors, even though at least half of the immigrants living in the U.S. illegally arrive on airplanes-legally-and just stay on when their visas expire. And two of our region's members of Congress, Chris Collins and Tom Reed, say they oppose "amnesty" even though there is no other reason to do immigration reform.
Emma Lazarus, whose poem is on the Statue of Liberty-"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free"-would be weeping.
James Bertolone is president of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also is president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 215.
7/26/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.