Interrogating the Great Depression

Published by dissentMagazine, by David Brody, December 19, 2008.

… The great majority of newly unionized workers do not, in fact, get collective bargaining through NLRB elections. The law also allows for voluntary recognition, in which an employer enters collective bargaining directly on being provided with proof (via signed cards) of a union’s majority. “Voluntary” is not quite the right word, because rare is the employer who takes this route except under duress. And that’s where the corporate campaign, so-called, comes in. The master practitioner, SEIU’s Andy Stern, likes to speak of “the power of persuasion and the persuasion of power.” Using a bit of both, SEIU has expanded to nearly 2 million members. If the Employee Free Choice Act succeeds, SEIU will dispense with corporate campaigns: the NLRB representation process will have been reopened. If it fails, organized labor will have no other path than Andy Stern’s, and we can anticipate the revival of a bastardized version of the economic warfare that once engulfed this country. In these worst of times, the Employee Free Choice Act will then indeed be a source of instability—only in answer to a question no one seems to have asked: Not the question “What happens if the bill passes?” but “What happens if it doesn’t?”

At the moment, the incoming administration is not showing its cards. As Senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act, he spoke for it during the campaign, and he owes a lot to the unions. But where the labor law stands on his agenda is unclear. So here’s one last historical nugget from the Great Depression. The National Labor Relations Act wasn’t high on the New Deal’s agenda either. FDR was, in fact, cool to it because he was busy currying business support for his cartelist NRA program. The labor law’s champion was not FDR but, from first to last, one of the great unsung heroes of American liberalism, Senator Robert F. Wagner. By the time Wagner’s bill came up in 1935, after being sidetracked the previous session, the New Deal had gone from its corporatist to its Keynesian phase, and collective bargaining became a priority on FDR’s agenda.

This time around, we can hope for a similar dynamic in quick time. Conservative commentators have been congratulating themselves on Obama’s centrist economic team, who know, says Bush’s first economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey, that unionization “will make the economy less competitive and delay recovery.” Not so fast. Lindsey’s counterpart on the Obama team, Larry Summers, regards the galloping income gap of recent vintage to be “the defining issue of our times.” To return to where we were in the late 1970s, says Summers, every household in the upper 1 percent would have to hand back $800,000 and every household in the bottom 80 percent receive a $10,000 check from the proceeds. That sounds outlandish, but it wouldn’t be so outlandish—and a lot healthier for all concerned—if we got the Employee Free Choice Act and gave working Americans the power to wrest back that $10,000 at the bargaining table. (full text).

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