The Labor Smackdown Begins 

UC restores the labor education program that Schwarzenegger was scared of.

New UC President Mark Yudof has found money in the university system's budget to continue funding for the University of California's Miguel Contreras Labor Program. In September, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed all funding for the well-known labor studies program, one of the country's premier departments. This center services the entire UC system, has research programs at Berkeley and UCLA, and employs approximately forty. Such programs exist in many states, usually as small research and teaching centers that function as red-headed stepchildren to the Taj Mahal business programs at most state and private universities.

The governor and Republican legislators have long targeted the Contreras labor program for elimination. While Schwarzenegger's budget contained an across-the-board cut for the university system, the program was the only academic program subject to his veto. When asked about the veto, a governor's spokesperson said, "There wasn't anything about those particular programs. ... This was just a matter of what can we veto versus what can't we veto." Even in today's climate of political disingenuousness, the statement was shocking.

In response to the veto, four hundred UC academics signed a letter of protest. Leaders of the program said the veto raised issues of academic freedom. Yudof agreed, and found funding through the end of the academic year. The dispute is sure to be revisited next year.

The battle lines are being drawn for the biggest labor versus business smackdown since the early days of the Clinton administration. Schwarzenegger was trying to eliminate one of the only institutions in which public funding supports the rights of labor. But even this flyspeck of money was too much for Arnold and his business buddies.

While the Contreras center veto was a part of the undercard of this tussle, consider also the issue of bailouts for the Big 3 automakers. As home to Fremont's New United Motor Manufacturing plant, the East Bay has a major stake in this fight. There is no question that the leaders and engineers of the auto companies have fouled their own nests with an arrogant attitude toward customer preference and environment standards. But when the same business community that supports the $700 billion bailout for financial institutions vociferously opposes a similar bailout for the auto companies, there is something else going on. As the president of the Steelworkers union said recently, they will bail out the folks who shower before work but not the ones who shower afterward.

It's hardly a coincidence that the auto industry happens to be our country's symbol of industrial unionism. Nor is it an accident that the financial industry is much whiter and more upper class than the auto industry. It is worth remembering that the auto industry was one of the main engines of the growth of a black middle class. Unfortunately, opponents of the auto workers have been supported by sloppy reporting suggesting that the average autoworker makes $70 an hour. In fact, according to an article in The New Republic, US workers at unionized auto plants make close to what workers at non-union plants earn. The difference has to do with preexisting health-care benefits for retirees. Does our country really want to deprive workers of those benefits?

The main event in 2009's battle royale between labor and capital will be the Employee Free Choice Act, which is sure to come up early next year in Congress. Randel K. Johnson, a vice president at the US Chamber of Commerce, has described the coming fight as a "firestorm bordering on Armageddon." The Chamber, the National Association of Manufacturers, and their ilk have made the defeat of any pro-labor legislation their top priority in Congress.

The Employee Free Choice Act is labor's attempt to a hack away at the kudzu vines that have enveloped the rights of employees to unionize. Over the last 25 years, those opposed to unionization have done a masterful job of erecting an edifice of regulations that make effective unionization nearly impossible in areas lacking strong political support. In a recent case in which I was involved, Bush's labor board found that an "invisible picket line" had been maintained by a union, subjecting it to legal sanctions. Numerous examples of such creative anti-union regulatory activity exist. Even when workers do vote for a union, an employer is often able to delay actually having to meet with the union for five years. And federal rulings have made it exceedingly easy for employers to fire union adherents and be liable for scandalously little back pay. The result is workers too scared to unionize.

Opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act claim that it would strip workers of their democratic rights. This is a delicious argument, since you can bet that these same employers are not major fans of worker democracy when it is directed at them. I won't hold my breath waiting for such employers to hold secret ballot votes to allow workers to determine their pay.

Still, the Employee Free Choice Act is more important symbolically than it is practically. Its passage would be a sign that times have truly changed in our country. The act would not alter the playing field dramatically, no matter what the Chamber of Commerce ads claim. After all, the United States is still home to a robust union-avoidance industry, which includes many august Bay Area law firms that are dedicated to helping employers smash unions for a pretty paycheck. The right to unionize is considered a fundamental human right in all the international human rights conventions. Yet our country has an industry dedicated to discouraging the use of those rights.

The current economic crisis makes clear that the old trickle-down economic system has produced an inequitable low-wage economy incapable of producing the kind of jobs that can support livable lives. Attention to education and infrastructure is required for the retooling that we need. But only an empowered workforce, able to work collectively without constant fear of discharge or intimidation, can follow through on this promise. A strong labor movement is the only way that this dream can be nurtured and protected.

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