The New Terms of the Labor Dialogue

Labor studies departments and professors are popular targets for right-wingers, and many academics prefer to avoid the risk and wrath of corporate-connected trustees. That's why Kate Bronfenbrenner is organized labor's go-to professor. She has not backed down from her dizzyingly thorough research, despite having been sued by anti-union corporations for slander and libel (they even demanded that she turn over her research notes).

Bronfenbrenner, who is director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, has close ties to both the AFL-CIO and the Change To Win federations, both of which rely heavily on her research. The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA or "card check"), which will be one of the more controversial bills of this legislative session, is based in part on her work. For the labor-obsessed, many of the depressingly familiar statistics on organizing -- that employers will fire at least one worker during 25 percent of unionization campaigns, for example -- are attributable to her research.

Bronfenbrenner is currently working 20-hour days to finish her latest study on employer behavior in National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election campaigns. But she found time for a phone interview with the Prospect to talk about, the gendered implications of EFCA, the advertising battle over the bill, Obama's disappointing trade appointees, and the struggle within Unite Here.

Let's start by talking about EFCA. If the bill passes, organized labor will benefit, but how would it help historically underrepresented groups like women?

It is important to know that the majority of new workers being organized over the last 20 years have been women and workers of color, [and] EFCA will push that forward at an escalating rate. The job growth in the economy is in sectors where women predominate. Women have a great deal to gain from unionization. Industries like health care, hospitality, and retail [are] all sectors where the union density is not high, and yet when women workers do organize, there are dramatic changes -- and not just in economic issues but in the whole way the workplace is structured. Schedules become regular, workers get health and welfare benefits, the ability to know what time you are going home at the end of the day, to be able to make a schedule in terms of your childcare, to have access to promotions.

We talk a lot about the glass ceiling, but one of the biggest problems for women is the sticky floor: There just aren't good job opportunities. What EFCA means is that women workers and particularly women workers of color, who are of the worst economic situation in this country, can finally move out of the worst jobs and the worst working conditions and into the kind of jobs which would allow them to support a family, buy a home, send their kids to college.

We've been seeing the ad war over EFCA heating up recently. There have been widely circulated attack ads on unions.

They're targeting my research, too. My research is the basis of EFCA, so they try to say that it isn't based on anything scientific in an attempt to discredit me. I am now a part of their ad campaign.

Well, do you think these ads have been having an effect? Unions are being blamed for job losses and factory closings.

McCain tried those arguments and he lost. I think that the current climate in the country is one where business is not too popular. The public has seen that deregulation and letting employers do whatever they want has hurt a lot of people. Corporate capital does not work in the interest of the public good. Letting them act without any restraint puts us where we are today. The National Labor Relations Act as it is now enforced is a poor piece of legislation. The Employee Free Choice Act is nothing more than making the law do what it was supposed to have been doing all along. [The key is to] talk to workers, talk to the public, and [help people] understand what employers do and what employers get away with and just how brutal the organizing process is. They spend millions and millions and millions of dollars that [they] could be investing in the economy; they spend to keep workers from organizing!

How has labor been trying to counter these tactics?

By telling stories. Having workers tell what actually happens when they try to organize. They are trying to use moral leverage, and they are running ads, and they are organizing, doing community-based campaigns. The key to their success will be to use the same coalition, the same model and strategies that got Obama elected. The same combination of new voters, young voters, black voters, Hispanic voters, and unions who came together need to be educated that this issue benefits everybody. There are senators and congressional representatives that need to be elected in their states, and a lot of new voters turned out in this last election who don't know them. These voters support Obama, and these voters got to know unions, because unions came down and helped to turn them out. I think that is leverage. The playing field has changed.

Speaking of the new progressive consensus, can labor expect significant backing from Obama in the fight for EFCA?

I don't think the labor movement doubts Obama's support in principle. Unlike the Clintons, who were never comfortable with labor and only became pro-labor as a matter of convenience, he has been a union supporter his entire career. No one doubts his support of EFCA. But I think for Obama the question is, where in his priority list is this?

The economic team he has assembled isn't encouraging.

In particular his trade team is in every way not a labor team.

But there was talk of him renegotiating NAFTA. He came out against the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, in large part because of labor-rights abuses.

His trade team was disappointing not just for the entire labor movement but for anybody thinking about the future of the global economy. For countries in the Global South, who were so excited by the election of Obama, the appointment of his economic team was very disturbing, because it is a team that is business-as-usual on the [World Trade Organization] and the [International Monetary Fund] and debt policy. Maybe he is still planning to be his own person, this idea of taking counsel from those who disagree with him. I think it reflects that those people do represent his ideas and, well, Hilda Solis is not sitting at that table.

In a 2006 interview you said, "The future for the U.S. labor movement depends on whether they can find common ground between the two federations," the AFL-CIO and Change To Win. Recently there has been some talk that they might reunite.

The problem is not between Change to Win and the AFL-CIO; the problem is that the labor movement is struggling with mergers and restructuring on all different levels. It always has. Even though the AFL-CIO and Change To Win were divided, when strikes happened and organizing drives happened at the state and local level, they all worked together.

On the other hand we have UNITE HERE which is tearing itself apart. How does that conflict plug into all this?

These are two unions that are led by two of the greatest organizers this country has seen. They are men who love their unions, and somewhere along the line everybody needs to remember that they have done some of the most brilliant organizing of the past 20 years. The organizing [Bruce] Raynor did in the South, organizing against the textile and apparel industry and winning huge victories through brilliant campaigns. The organizing [John] Wilhelm did with the clerical workers at Yale and then turning Las Vegas into a union city. Very different industries, very different opponents, but they are two incredible leaders. These are two groups of people who actually share so much, and I can tell you this because at least 200 of them are my former students. And for them to be fighting with each other and not organizing and not bargaining and not building a labor movement, it is devastating. It should not have gotten to this point.

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