Rights at work,
Leave on the tide;
Without a union
At our side.

There’s a well-established ritual in Washington governing workers’ rights. When Republicans are in charge, they pursue a scorched-earth policy. This includes placing anti-union activists in charge of the Labor Department and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), failing to enforce existing restraints on employer abuse, and seeking to unravel labor laws first enacted during the Depression.

Then when the Democrats get back in they tend to take labor for granted, getting by with as little correction of this boss-worker imbalance as they can get away with. Like the Republicans, they too seek to avoid alienating generous big donors. This sort of minimalist improvement is going on right now. Happily, there are some good new interim NLRB appointees and some added staff at the Labor Department. Unfortunately at this rate they will never catch up.

Democrats are unlikely to even call for a vote on the labor movement’s top priority–a bill to strengthen an employee’s right to unionize. Republicans have made plain that the Employee Free Choice Act is at the top of their kill list, more important even than health care or Wall Street reform. Present law is skewed heavily against workers trying to organize and the GOP wants to keep it that way.

And on this issue, having pretty much blown the public relations battles over health care and finance, Republicans finally have the press on their side. Luckily for them, newspaper, TV, and magazine owners have no use for unions either. They just raise costs. Consequently, the plight of mistreated workers gets little of the sympathetic media coverage that mistreated patients or investors enjoy. Toyota can close its only unionized plant in the U.S., but its anti-union practices are never examined.

Neither is that pandemic economic virus of misclassifying employees as private contractors. Countless employers by now have discovered that they can get away with such cheating, and thereby avoid paying worker’s compensation, unemployment, and Social Security taxes. It’s a great scam.

Nor will you read or hear much about the giant employee underclass who toil so diligently and shamefully to keep prices down for you and me. Take farm workers. They aren’t even covered by our minimum wage. Or home health aides or many restaurant workers. No paid sick days for them. They’re even rightly afraid to report injuries.

Gradually this callous treatment of lower-wage classes climbs up the economic ladder. By now plenty of middle-class workers, folks who would never support a union, have also found themselves mistreated. Layoffs and rule changes can strike quite suddenly. Without a union or government bulwark to protect them, even the highest-level employees can be treated like dirt.

For better or worse, the United States is far from alone in this anti-union crusade. Many nations, frequently our best Latin and Asian allies, are indeed worse. Labor leaders there, and the journalists who report on them, are often murdered. Fortunately, U.S. employers have pretty much forsaken that technique. Who needs it after all, when the law is so stacked on your side?

But even without new laws, the government could–if it chose–wield the power to influence employer practices by scrutinizing the behavior of its own suppliers and service contractors. Pressure there could alter the tone of management generally, and slow the speedy erosion of employment quality that is now common and growing in our republic.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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