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Panelists Opine on Revitalizing Labor Movement

June 5, 2012
By Marc Bussanich, LaborPress City Reporter
The future of labor organizing was the topic of discussion on Monday, June 4 at the Century Foundation, a progressive non-partisan think tank founded in 1919. Former NY Times columnist Bob Herbert moderated a panel where the panelists spoke about the new forms and tactics the labor movement must adopt to expand membership.

Herbert started off by saying, “We no longer live in an era where hundreds or thousands of workers work under one roof [as when auto companies used to employ thousands of workers in one factory, before automation eliminated hundreds of positions]. So we need to think and enact new organizing models.”

Interestingly, while each panelist offered their own views about how the labor movement needs to grow to stop membership from hemorrhaging further, not one of the panelists suggested that the strike is one option to be employed by the labor movement to improve its economic outlook.

Herbert provided some grim figures for working people in America. He noted that 50 million Americans are poor and another 50 million have been characterized near poor.

The panelists included Richard Kahlenberg, author of the recent book, “Why Labor Organizing Should Be A Civil Right,” Amy Dean, former president of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council and author of “A New, New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement,” and Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

In response to the grim figures mentioned by Herbert, each panelist explained how their proposals can potentially rebuild a robust labor movement that has historically contributed to a robust and strong middle class.

Kahlenberg, who said he’s nervous about Tuesday, May 5’s vote to recall Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, posed the question to the audience, “Is amending the Civil Rights Act for labor more politically viable than previous reforms?”

Well, he noted that previous efforts at labor law reform failed four times when there was a majority in the House and Senate starting with Lyndon B. Johnson.

Therefore, one possible way to revitalize the labor movement is to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which helped to overcome racial inequality.

Kahlenberg said, “We argue in the book that to strengthen protections for workers, the Civil Rights Act, which today protects individuals based on discrimination on race, gender and national origin, should be extended to protect those who are trying to form a union.”  

He explained there are certain advantages to this approach from a legal perspective.

“Under the Civil Rights Act, there’s a right to sue in federal court and to engage in legal discovery (i.e., go through the employer’s files). There’s also compensatory and punitive damages up to $300,000, and attorney fees if you [unions] win in court. None of these remedies are available under the National Labor Relations Act.”

Then he questioned whether it is appropriate to include in civil rights protections the right to organize. 

“We argue that it’s appropriate for three reasons. The first is that labor organizing has long been recognized as a fundamental right here and internationally. Furthermore, we argue that there’s a special logic to including labor protections in the Civil Rights Act given the strong connection between the two movements [civil rights and labor movements] in this country. Both are fundamentally about advancing human dignity,” Kahlenberg said.

He continued, “Also, we argue protections for labor organizing deserves to be in the Civil Rights Act because it’ll advance the original goals of the act to prevent discrimination.”

What has been the reaction thus far to Kahlenberg’s proposition?

He played a clip of conservative commentator Ann Coulter on Fox News who said, “Civil rights is for blacks….Now they [Democrats] want to call everything a civil right, whether its women, or immigrants and now labor unions.”

LaborPress then asked whether the revitalization of the strike should be at the top of the labor movement’s agenda.

Herbert responded, “This highlights the importance of labor making alliances with other organizations….Labor can’t go it alone without alliances.”

In turn, Kahlenberg said, “Our civil rights proposal doesn’t do anything about strikes per se. But we’re caught in this political box where labor really can’t get stronger until it changes the laws, but the laws can’t be changed until labor is stronger.”

LaborPress readers can view the complete discussion via

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