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Labor sees an in as Democrats regain power

After years in "a defensive crouch," as one union official puts it, organized labor sees an opportunity in the new Democratic Congress for action to help workers - from raising the minimum wage to improving pension protections.
/ Source: The Associated Press

After years in "a defensive crouch," as one union official puts it, organized labor sees an opportunity in the new Democratic Congress for action to help workers - from raising the minimum wage to improving pension protections.

Union workers voted Democratic in the House races, 67 percent to 30 percent. And others in union households voted almost as strongly Democratic, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the networks.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney sees the elections as a "mandate for a union agenda."

Likewise, says Bill Samuel, legislative director for the AFL-CIO, "we have an opportunity to push our agenda for working families."

First likely changes
Organized labor will press for an increase in the minimum wage - the most likely item to be passed because President Bush may go along with it if certain benefits are included for small businesses.

Labor also:

  • Wants changes in the Medicare prescription drug program to introduce price negotiations with pharmaceutical companies.
  • Seeks to change bankruptcy laws that allow companies to abandon pension and health care commitments to workers.
  • Opposes trade agreements that don't protect workers' rights.

The unions also will push for improved mining safety laws, increased retirement protections and expanded health care.

"One of the best ways we can address stagnating wages and lost pensions and health care is to restore the bargaining power of workers," Samuel said.

The most effective way to restore that bargaining power, he said, is passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow formation of a union once there is majority support and increase penalties for management violations of efforts to organize. Current procedures that call for an election can be drawn out in ways to campaign aggressively against formation of a union, he said.

Aggressive agenda expected
The AFL-CIO executive council meets Tuesday to discuss various issues, including the legislative agenda.

The aggressive stance is a sharp turnaround from the past few years.

"There were days during the last six years when we were in a defensive crouch protecting 60 years of workplace advances," Samuel said.

Organized labor clearly expects the Democratic Congress to help pass pro-worker legislation after an unprecedented get-out-the-vote effort.

Organized labor spent more than $100 million on its get-out-the-vote effort - $40 million by the AFL-CIO alone - with 187,000 union volunteers in the AFL-CIO program knocking on more than 3 million doors in the final four days. Labor did more microtargeting of voters, but the most effective technique was still worker-to-worker contact.

After a union split in 2005 that some projected would cripple the labor movement, the seven breakaway unions in the Change to Win federation also put together an ambitious election program, some of it coordinated with the AFL-CIO. The aggressive political effort comes at a time that organized labor has been shrinking.

The politics of labor
When the AFL-CIO merged in the 1950s, one of every three private-sector workers belonged to a labor union. Now, only about 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.

"Activists from Change to Win welcome their new leadership, but with an expectation," said Anna Burger, chairwoman of Change to Win. "These new leaders must do their part to restore the American dream - a paycheck that supports a family, affordable health care, a secure retirement and most of all, a better life for our kids."

Almost half of union members said they voted to show their opposition to President Bush. About three-fourths of union members opposed the Iraq war and they voted overwhelmingly for Democrats.

While much of the electorate shifted toward the Democrats, union voters clearly made a difference in many close races. And Democratic lawmakers acknowledge that pro-worker legislation will be a priority.

"American workers have been losing ground over the last several years despite the nation's economic growth, and we are eager to change that by promoting economic policies that benefit everyone," said Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat likely to be chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

"First and foremost, we are going to raise the minimum wage. Through oversight, we are going to make sure that laws already on the books to protect workers are being enforced. And we are going to work to strengthen labor laws in order to improve the living standards of middle class families," Miller said.

Organized labor will be able to push for hearings and get congressional support for the passage of some legislation, but it may face difficulties getting pro-worker bills signed into law because of the threat of Senate filibusters and presidential vetoes.

One of the biggest changes for labor, however, is not having to fend off attacks from a Republican Congress and administration, say veteran observers of labor.

"Labor is in a good position," said congressional analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "They were a major player in the turnout effort in an election with many close races. When they weigh in, they're going to be listened to."