Labor -- Inescapably!

Once upon a time -- as in long, long ago -- all presidents and presidential candidates were expected to have an answer for the “labor question.” Nowadays, not only are there no answers, there's scarcely a question, at least not one demanding enough to command prolonged attention in this election year.

Unasked, unanswerable, yet inescapable! Jobless recovery, the most lopsided distribution of wealth and income in the industrialized world, tens of millions of the working poor, mass transfusions of American jobs abroad, a health system that could pass as a form of social triage -- the list goes on and on. And it includes a labor movement so anemic it stands by helplessly watching the achievements of generations go up in smoke.

The best answer to the labor question has always been the labor movement -- a robust movement would change the face of the country. So if President Kerry wants to reverse America's descent into economic underdevelopment, he needs to do his part in making the labor movement healthy again. He could start by endorsing pending legislation designed to shore up what is now the badly eroded right to organize.

Most important are those bills sanctioning “card check” recognition of unions. There exists a raft of amendments to National Labor Relations Board procedures that would allow cards to be counted and a bargaining agent certified -- with employer appeals heard afterward, rather than functioning as they now do to delay things interminably until the union fades away.

Other procedural reforms mandate heavily increased fines for firing pro-union employees. President Kerry might get behind these reforms, which have been festering in the back alleys of the Democratic Party since Jimmy Carter steered it to the right. Kerry might do something even more elementary: Issue an executive order banning any federal agency from entering into a contract with a labor-law violator. All he'd be demanding the business community do is obey the law.

Muscling up like this might make President Kerry more audacious. For example, he could push hard for the minimum-wage increase he proposed in June, not only a humane and just thing to do but one that would improve the bargaining leverage of trade unions that struggle to stay afloat in a sea of sweated labor. Indeed, he might use his bully pulpit to chastise corporations like Wal-Mart, who've helped universalize the sweatshop and keep unions out of the only dynamic and growing sector of the economy. Amid a jobless recovery, President Kerry could remind the country that in more civilized times, we considered the 8-hour day and the 40-hour week a norm, one the rest of the industrial world takes for granted, one whose reimposition today would help spread the work around.

Bolder still, our new president might call for the repeal of Section 14B of the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, that notorious provision sanctioning “right to work” laws in the South and elsewhere that have undermined unionization in these regions since shortly after the Second World War. Then, of course, there's the small matter of globalization. But having come this far, President Kerry might go the extra mile and get serious about negotiating trade agreements that include enforceable labor standards.

What is truly remarkable about virtually all of this wish list is its modesty; one might say it's downright reactionary. A good deal of it was status quo pre–Ronald Reagan. None of it would seriously derange anything fundamental about the current arrangements in the international political economy. But sometimes back to the future is the only way forward.

Is any of this likely? Only if President Kerry believes in it -- his disavowal of “redistributionist economics” is not promising in this regard -- and is prepared to lead the Democratic Party out of that wilderness of its own making, which is the reason many of these proposed reforms have been sitting around gathering dust since the 1970s.

For those us not likely to be invited to join a Kerry cabinet, the imperative is to keep up the heat. n

Steve Fraser is the New Labor Forum's editor-at-large and the author of Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor.