Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The New Republic Editorial: Labor Pains

Labor Pains." The New Republic (Editorial: January 10, 2005)

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 was once considered the crown jewel of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The National Labor Relations Board (nlrb), which it created, was supposed to ensure that workers enjoyed the same freedom of association in the workplace that they did in the political arena. By guaranteeing that workers could organize without being fired or threatened, it redressed the growing imbalance of power in the workplace. By encouraging the growth of the labor movement, it stilled the fires of revolutionary socialism and Huey Long's populism and laid the foundation for a new democratic pluralism by giving workers a seat in Washington next to business.

For 45 years, the Act worked reasonably well. The ranks of labor swelled without threatening the profitability of U.S. business. The gap between rich and poor, which had widened in the 1920s, was reduced. The afl-cio, courted by Republican and Democratic administrations, became part of the Washington consensus. But, in the 1980s, that consensus began to fall apart when the Reagan administration drastically cut the nlrb's funding--causing huge backlogs of cases--and when its appointee to the board chipped away at employees' bargaining rights and at penalties for unfair labor practices. Bill Clinton tried to undo some of the damage, but George W. Bush has resumed Reagan's approach. Since becoming a majority in 2003, his appointees to the nlrb have taken business's side in more than 25 controversial cases. None of these rulings was earthshaking, but together, they presage an erosion of workers' ability to organize.

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