Labor Faces `Huge Sinkhole' for U.S. Agenda as Republicans Take Over House
Organized labor’s window of opportunity in Congress slammed shut last night.
With Republicans taking control of the House and gaining seats in the Senate, unions face little chance of achieving their legislative goals, such as relaxed organizing rules, mandatory paid sick leave, bigger fines for workplace safety violations and tougher mine-safety rules.
“The election profoundly reshapes labor’s agenda,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor of labor relations at University of California at Berkeley, in an interview. “The Republican pickup of seats in the House is going to be a huge sinkhole for labor.”
Among the company winners are Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Starbucks Corp., Home Depot Inc. and Burger King Holdings Inc., all of which opposed labor’s top priority, the so-called card- check bill that would make it easier for workers to join a union. The bill was already stalled in the Senate because Democrats lacked the votes to overcome Republican opposition.
Unions spent more than $200 million to try to maintain Democratic control of both houses of Congress, following the $400 million they spent to elect Democrats to the White House and Congress in 2008.
Labor leaders are now likely to scale back their legislative ambitions and increase efforts to influence regulatory agencies.
“As soon as it took office, the Obama administration began using its regulatory authority to strengthen worker protections, which had been neglected for the past eight years,” said Bill Samuel, the top lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation. “We expect them to continue.”
Glenn Spencer, who handles labor matters at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest U.S. business lobbying group, agrees. A Republican-controlled House won’t suddenly be able to advance a variety of anti-union, pro-business legislation, he said.
“On labor issues, it’s going to be very difficult to move the ball in either direction,” Spencer said in an interview. “As Congress becomes more inhospitable, we will see the battlefield shift to the regulatory arena, where unions will find far more fertile ground for their agenda.”
In the past two years, President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress delivered some labor-backed legislation, such as the health-care overhaul and a law that makes it easier for women to sue employers for wage discrimination. On other issues, labor has been frustrated that Democratic leaders failed to push harder against Republican and business opposition.
Unions have backed economic-stimulus efforts, including the bill that Obama signed Aug. 10 that gave states $26 billion to save the jobs of as many as 160,000 teachers, police officers and other government employees facing layoffs due to state and local budget cuts. Republicans campaigned this year against further stimulus spending, favoring tax cuts instead.
That put much at stake in the midterm elections for labor unions, whose $200 million in spending includes political action committee contributions, television advertising, campaign mailings, phone banks and get-out-the-vote efforts, overwhelmingly in support of Democratic candidates.
The 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which says Republicans may try to curtail activities by public-sector unions, led labor unions in outlays, saying it spent about $90 million. The union has taken advantage of the Supreme Court decision that loosened restrictions on campaign spending, which also enabled corporations and ideological groups to increase political spending.
The Service Employees International Union said it budgeted $44 million, and the National Education Association, the largest teachers union, said it spent $40 million.
Most of the activity on labor’s issues during the past two years has taken place in the House Committee on Education and Labor, headed by 18-term California Democrat George Miller, who received more than $385,000 from labor PACs in the current two- year election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org. The committee has held hearings on union priorities, such as requiring companies to provide paid sick time and banning them from firing workers because of their gender identity.
The committee approved a bill in July that would make it easier to shut mines with repeated safety violations, such as the Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia where 29 mine workers died in an April explosion, the worst mine disaster in 40 years. The bill also would increase penalties for some types of workplace violations and add protections for whistleblowers who report safety lapses. House Democratic leaders haven’t brought the bill to a floor vote.
The committee’s senior Republican and prospective chairman, six-term Representative John Kline of Minnesota, says he opposes that bill, as well as labor-backed efforts to increase penalties for violations of Occupational Health and Safety Administration regulations.
The AFL-CIO says Kline has voted with labor less than 10 percent of the time since coming to Congress in January 2003, while Miller has sided with unions more than 93 percent of the time since 1975.
If Kline takes over the committee, he would be likely to shift its focus to pushing back against Obama’s efforts to increase regulations. “We need to examine how government red tape and regulations are affecting job creation,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “I oppose legislation that would create more litigation in the workplace.”
Peg Seminario, director of occupational health and safety issues at the AFL-CIO, said workplace regulations have been toughened in the past under Republican leadership, and she hasn’t ruled out that happening in the future.
“Clearly, the Republicans have a different agenda from us,” she said. “But what ultimately forces changes in mine safety and workplace laws are actual events. Workplace disasters can’t be ignored.”
Kline says he supports some changes in workplace safety laws and agrees with Democrats that investigators should be given subpoena powers when investigating the causes of mine explosions. He also supports tighter mine-safety rules governing the use of rock dust to prevent explosions.
Labor unions are also likely to see their ambitions frustrated in seeking new federal restrictions on U.S. airlines moving maintenance work overseas.
U.S. airlines spent about $14.9 billion on maintenance in 2009. Passenger carriers such as United Continental Holdings Inc. and US Airways Group Inc. used contractors at home and abroad for about 43 percent of the work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Kline is the chief House sponsor of a bill to ban employers from agreeing to unionization through the card-check process, which excludes a secret-ballot vote by workers. The bill has 115 House sponsors.
“As hard as the Republicans might try, it’s doubtful legislation attacking workers rights would make it to the White House,” he said.“And if it did, I can’t foresee a situation where President Obama would sign it.”
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