Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Workers: Beware “Reformers” Bearing Gifts

by Lane Windham

(Below is my latest piece from The Hill's Congress Blog)

Anyone earning a paycheck these days knows good and well that the economy has changed. Call it the Uber or gig economy, call it subcontracting, call it part-time America. Even if we’ve been at the same job for 30 years, we watch nervously as our kids and their friends enter jobs in which a fair wage and employer-provided benefits are neither secure nor certain. The old laws that governed the workplace no longer seem to apply; a precarious work world is our new normal, and we’re not sure what it all means or where it’s headed.

Right-wing politicians and activists are quickly stepping into that space created by our own uncertainty, offering labor law “reforms” that purport to address the new economy. Yet people who work for a living should be wary of the giant horse that such proponents are so eager to roll through the new economy’s gates. In fact, many of these “reforms” have been around for more than 40 years, and have long been designed to shore up corporate power in the face of workers’ collective action.

On December 18 in The Hill, a former George H.W. Bush appointee to the National Labor Relations Board called for evaluating and renovating American labor law, arguing that the law is a “relic” that no longer serves. In fact, our nation’s central labor law does need multiple, urgent fixes. Part-time workers, temps, and people who work for sub-contractors find themselves excluded entirely from its protections, for example. So do the legions of “supervisors” who do little more than coordinate the assembly of hamburgers or pizzas.

Yet John Raudabaugh addresses none of these shortcomings. Rather, he focuses on the so-called “Employee Rights Act,” legislation sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that eerily mirrors elements of “The Employee Bill of Rights Act” of 1977. Decades ago, conservative Republicans like Hatch pushed this anti-union legislation that included a prohibition on employees and employers coming to their own agreement about a union, for example, absent a government-sponsored election. That’s a provision that has popped up yet again in Hatch’s “new” proposed law, and it could be particularly onerous to today’s workers who need all the flexible tools they can get to help them renegotiate their relationships with their employers. Extremists like Hatch have been at this game a long time. A young Orrin Hatch was the driving force in 1978 behind the 19-day Senate filibuster that blocked that decade’s common-sense labor reforms - - reforms that would have strengthened workers’ ability to organize and bargain in those crucial years when our economy first started to globalize.

Raudabaugh also laments the National Labor Relations Board’s recent efforts to make labor law serve today’s workplaces, such as by holding franchises more accountable as employers or allowing smaller units of workers to form unions at big workplaces. Both laudable fixes give would give workers more bargaining power, and that’s what right-wing ideologues fear the most.

The U.S.’s central 21st-century workplace challenge is to build new rules that match the economy’s latest iteration, yet that do not put all of the uncertainty on to working people’s backs. Our nation is currently having a much-needed debate about just how to do that. Labor leaders, Silicon Valley start-ups and foundations have all been jumping into the fray, offering ideas to give workers more portable benefits, to reclassify on-demand workers, or for a $15 national minimum wage. These proposals are neither perfect nor comprehensive, but they are a good start. They deserve a central place in the presidential campaigns, for instance.

What America’s workers do not need, however, is a warmed-over, 40-year-old right-wing agenda that is meant to gut workers’ unions. Enough of that. It’s time to move on, and build a 21st economy that works for everyone.

Lane Windham, Ph.D., is a labor and working-class historian and post-doctoral scholar with The Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights.