LWB Idol Thomas Frank files his latest WSJ column on LWB Idol Thomas Geoghegan’s run for Congress.
Kay Steiger, guest-blogging (with Alyssa) at Matt Yglesias’ site, considers sexism in “trade professions” and after pointing out that jobs like hair dressing aren’t counted as such precisely because women do them, suggests that
What would help is first what these truck mechanics Harding points to are already doing, mentoring young women in non-traditional fields. Secondly, unions that represent those industries need to not only be free of sexism themselves, but aggressively pursue lawsuits that would discourage sexual harassment. This is happening with some larger trade unions already, but it’s not as wide as it should be.
I think this really sells short the potential for trade unions to take on discrimination. Any kind of organization with the resources can file a lawsuit – or individuals or groups can do it with no organization at all. In some cases, like the Dukes suit against Wal-Mart (largest class action suit ever in this country), that can contribute greatly to leveraging pressure on a company. But workers with a union can change the behavior of their employer in a slew of other ways. That includes negotiating with them.
Union workers can and do win binding contracts obligating companies to take on unequal opportunity by creating training programs, by collaborating with community leaders and/ or non-profits, by submitting to oversight by workers, clergy, politicians, or whoever else to judge progress, to change work rules or job descriptions that create needless barriers for people who could otherwise do the job – and in any number of other ways. And these workers can enforce these commitments, as well as the company’s legal obligation not to discriminate, through collective action and through a grievance process that moves faster, cheaper, and more accessibly than a lawsuit. The limits are defined by power on the shop floor and nationally or internationally in the industry.
As Thomas Geoghegan wrote last year in his book See You in Court,
a big change has been the way we have moved from contract to tort. For most working Americans, the kind of people I represent, this accounts for the biggest change in the way the law now impacts their lives. In the 1950s and 1960s, up to 35 percent of workers, especially men, were covered by collective bargaining agreements…In the last thirty years, there has been a loss of contract rights – to a job, a pension, or even health care – unlike that in any other developed country. It is really a new legal regime that many Americans experience as infuriating, without being able to express that fury in an appropriate way.
Now the missed opportunities within substantial chunks of the labor movement to link arms as part of movements for sexual and racial inequality in the twentieth century is not unrelated to the steep decline in union power and union membership. But those workers Kay is talking about, who have unions, have an arsenal at their disposal to attack discrimination in the workplace – not only through contract language of course, but also through the kinds of action, client pressure, media strategies, and such that play part in winning recognition and winning contracts – without depending on the prospects of a lawsuit.
While I don’t at all agree with Thomas Geoghegan’s contention in Which Side Are You On that the ACLU’s agenda, while noble, wouldn’t “cost anyone anything” to implement, he does speak to a well-justified frustration many “labor liberals” feel at the difficulty of stirring certain civil libertarians to get up in arms about the civil liberties of workers on and off the job. Not only are positive rights (like economic security) crucial to the meaningful exercise of negative rights (like free speech), positive and negative rights frequently and fundamentally intersect, perhaps nowhere moreso than the workplaces in which millons spend the majority of their waking hours. Opposition to civil liberties comes not only from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their values but also from those who see in others’ exercise of their rights a threat to their economic interests. That’s why the right of workers to speak, assemble, and organize on and off the job has always been threatened in this country. And that’s why it’s so often fallen to unions, in Nathan Newman’s words, to “bring the first Amendment to the workplace.” It’s worth asking (as Geoghegan was trying, though through a troubling turn of phrase, to do) why the idea of deprivation of civil liberties affects many of us more viscerally than the idea of economic deprivation. But even those who only get up in arms over the former should be disturbed that, as Geoghegan has been reminding us for years, American law offers you no protection against being fired for expressing your political beliefs, and promises the weakest of responses to employers who threaten, punish, or fire workers seeking to bargain collectively.
What are the stakes? The Bush-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board provided a reminder last month when it upheld a security firm’s rule that bars its employees from “fraternizing” with each other on or off the job. Guardsmark insisted that its employees give up their right to associate with each other socially on their own time as a condition of employment, and the NLRB blessed the company to keep the rule in place.
Faced with the the real possibility of a rejection of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in the House, which would mark a significant defeat for George Bush and for the already-cracking “Washington Consensus” on free trade, the Democratic Leadership Council has stepped up to bat in CAFTA’s defense. As David Sirota writes:
As if the DLC is just an arm of the Bush White House, the organization timed this release perfectly to coincide with Bush’s final push for the legislation, as if they are just an arm of the Bush White House. Despite the DLC’s pathetic, transparent rhetoric about wanting to “bring a spirit of radical pragmatism” to the debate, what the DLC is showing is that it is an organization devoted to urging Democrats to sell their souls to the highest bidder. That may sell well with the DLC’s corporate funders in Washington, D.C., but out here in the heartland, that kind of gutless behavior only hurts the Democratic Party over the long run.
Sirota drew some fire from DLC folks after the election for a piece he wrote arguing that the version of “centrism” they promote is well to the right of the average American and thus not only morally but also electorally bankrupt. I’m even less interested now than I was then in trying to evaluate the claims and counter-claims which flew in the wake of the article about which politicians, or talking points have or haven’t gotten gotten the DLC’s approval at what times. As I said at the time, if the DLC wants on board with Elliot Spitzer’s prosecutions of CEOs or Howard Dean’s condemnations of GOP corruption, the more the merrier. We need all hands on deck, and the work is too important to let historical differences avert cooperation where there’s consensus.
About those historical differences though: There’s a constellation of consultants who see class-conscious economic populism as roughly equivalent to racism, see “big government” as a menace to be tamed by technocrats irregardless of the will of the governed, and see the salvation of the Democratic party in policies which fulfill CEOs’ wishlists in the name of liberating their employees. And they have exerted massive, and unfortunate, influence over the direction of the Democratic party over the two decades since their founding, particularly the eight years of the Clinton Presidency. At least for those years, the major proponents of that “business-friendly,” “free-trading” ideological position with the Democratic party, as they themselves would tell you, were the Democratic Leadership Council as an organization and its affiliated thinkers. As Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Geoghegan in Which Side Are You On?, and even self-described “radical centrist” Michael Lind in Up From Conservatism (on DLC: “an echo, not a choice”) demonstrate, the consequences included ceding the support of all too many working class voters and the control of the US Congress.
I’d be the first to acknowledge that there’s a tendency amongst some of us on the left to throw around the term “DLC” liberally (so to speak) in reference to an ideological position we disagree with rather than to the organization itself, at times even in describing policies the DLC, as an existent think tank and not a symbolic construction, may not fully support (they were indeed in favor of weakening class action lawsuits, but I’m still waiting to know what they make of Bush’s bankruptcy bill). I’d like nothing more than to be convinced never to use the acronym that way again – it’s not hard to come up with other epithets for Democrats who vote for Corporate America’s interests over everyone else’s. But there’s a reason that so many of us associate the DLC, judiciously or not, with corporate courtship and not with, say, crusades against corruption. It’s epitomized, sadly, by the choice to come out swinging for a trade agreement even “dogmatic free trader” Matt Yglesias recognizes as “an effort to impose low labor standards and a misguided intellectual property regime on Central American nations.”