Labor Movement Weakened by Infighting

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WASHINGTON—Workers’ rights are poised to take center stage in today’s political economy, but strife and divisiveness within the labor movement could threaten labor’s clout.

With Democrats – who have historically been pro-labor – controlling both the White House and Congress, organized labor has its best chance in nearly a decade to make headway and institute real changes for workers. As rival factions arise within unions such as Unite Here, a textile and service-industry workers’ organization, and major federations as AFL-CIO and Change to Win remain divided, however, even Democrats are warning that labor’s success could be threatened.

Workers hit hard by recession are relying more than ever on union support in the face of furloughs and layoffs, but fighting within the movement could lessen labor’s chances to reform existing labor laws. Particularly at risk right now is the Employee Free Choice Act, which was introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate on March 10, 2009 and which would enable workers to form, join, or assist labor organizations more easily. The EFCA would also provide for employees, rather than the employer, to decide upon elections for unionizations, and would provide injunctions for unfair labor practices while organizing efforts are ongoing. Passage of the act, additionally, will be crucial to boosting union membership.

Today’s labor movement, with its infighting, rivalry and jockeying for position of key players, has been likened to a dysfunctional family. Experts disagree as to the extent of the effect of this dysfunction, however, with some warning that the strife could be detrimental to the future of labor proposals, and others arguing that the problems can be overcome.

After the Democrats lost the bid for the presidency in 2004, labor leaders battled over the problems facing their movement, including shrinking membership and diminishing political clout. Even now that the climate has become more favorable, however, it remains difficult for labor officials and supporters to agree on strategy and priorities.

President Barack Obama has already reversed some Bush administration policies that labor leaders claimed favored employers, as well as addressing issues of pay discrimination and workplace health and safety legislation. Nevertheless, it’s clear that unions, which represent just over 12 percent of the nation’s workforce, must present a united front in order to win public support of measures such as the Employee Free Choice Act.

 

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