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Labor’s Dilemma

June 22, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
After Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin retained his governorship after the recall effort spearheaded by mostly public sector unions, many pundits and observers weighed in on whether labor’s strategy was flawed.

Gary N. Chaison, Professor of Industrial Relations at Clark University, said in an interview that labor made a big mistake in Wisconsin because its argument wasn’t appropriate. He believes that the labor movement in Wisconsin should have refocused its argument away from workers’ rights to unionize to jobs.

“Maybe labor made that argument in Wisconsin because they believed that would be more resonating, and they didn’t want to embarrass the White House because federal employees have very limited rights to unionize as well.”

Chaison added, however, that if labor in the badger state had instead focused on jobs, it could have won the recall if it said that Walker was denying workers a basic right and that he was overreaching.

“I think labor’s focus was wrong,” said Chaison.

Now that the Wisconsin recall is history, the next electoral challenge for labor is the presidential elections in November.

“There’s a very serious problem because labor will support President Barack Obama, but will do so reluctantly because it feels betrayed that Obama didn’t come to Wisconsin the day before the recall vote.”

He added, “I think labor felt Obama was being a fair-weather friend because while he flew over Chicago and Minnesota, he avoided getting involved in something that wasn’t a sure win. And labor doesn’t need support from people who are looking only for sure victories.”

After the Wisconsin debacle, depending upon who you speak to, observers questioned whether labor finds itself at its weakest point.

“I do see labor at its weakest point because it has lost members and influence that’ll be difficult to regain, and the worst of it, coming out of Wisconsin, is that labor, particularly public employees, have lost touch,” Chaison said.

Chaison believes that public employees should have said that we will bear the burden by conceding on pensions and job security like everyone else who has lost a job.

“I think that labor has appeared to have made special deals that were politically motivated, and in this way, they have lost support among the public.”

To regain the public’s support, Chaison feels that labor has to show that it is part of the solution, not the problem.

“I suggest that public sector unions make concession in terms of job security and pensions because we’re in a recession, while explaining to members that when economic times improve, we’ll regain those benefits,” noted Chaison.

He also noted, “The public is expecting flexibility from labor because the economy has stalled. I don’t think labor really understands how much is at stake. The outcome in Wisconsin [stripping of public sector collective bargaining rights] is going to happen all over the country and there may be proposed legislation that strips workers of not only their pensions, but their bargaining rights as well.”

Chaison is fearful that if Obama loses in November, Romney will push for a national right to work law that will turn historically union strongholds in the North to resemble working relations in the South.

Because of labor’s current vulnerability, Chaison feels that striking is not even an option for labor.

“Now is not the time to fight, but the time to protect past gains,” Chaison said.

If labor is stronger in five years, then maybe the strike option will be more useful, he noted. 

But he also acknowledged that the inability to strike puts labor in a difficult position because employers could be emboldened by labor’s defensive tactics.

A recent book, Revitalizing the Strike by Joe Burns, makes the argument that the only way for the labor movement to revive itself and regain power is through the strike, which the labor movement used, among other tactics such as secondary boycotts and solidarity strikes (both outlawed today) during the heyday of the 1930s and put labor on the offensive against employers.

But that’s 70 years ago, and Chaison believes that the strike option in today’s economic environment is outmoded because employers do not hesitate to replace striking workers and the general public usually patronizes struck establishments.

“Labor law will have to be changed in order to make the strike weapon as effective as it used to be,” Chaison said.

As far as where labor will be in five years in the context of its current challenges, Chaison said, “Labor is at a turning point, especially after Wisconsin and the general public voting to cut benefits to public workers in San Diego and San Jose. If labor shows signs of moderation and flexibility, and is attuned to the public’s needs, then they can revive the movement. But if they continue to blame the forcefulness of their enemies and that they are being outspent, then I don’t think they will.” 

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