TPM Cafe: Opinion

Unions have long been active in politics, and unions’ political influence once extended to both political parties. When labor was strong, even during periods of Republican ascendancy, elected officials could not afford to disregard union leaders’ advice when devising policy.

Take the case of W. J. Usery Jr. (pictured, center) Usery was a longtime labor activist who got his start as a cofounder of a local branch of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) in Georgia. For years he rose through the ranks of the IAM before President Richard Nixon nominated him to be assistant secretary of labor in 1969. While Nixon was no great supporter of the labor movement (and that’s our understatement of the day), he understood that labor’s assistance was essential for his legislative program. As he put it, “No program works without Labor cooperation.”

President Ford followed Nixon’s precedent, promoting Usery to secretary of labor in 1976. It would be as if a President Paul Ryan decided to tap Randi Weingarten – current head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – to be the Secretary of Education.

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Late last week, President Obama issued an executive order expanding current overtime protections for U.S. workers. The move is critical for many in the U.S. who work more than 40 hours a week in sectors that pay little, but are nevertheless currently “exempt” from overtime pay.

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This is part of TPM Cafe Book Club for Jake Rosenfeld's What Unions No Longer Do. Rosenfeld's latest contribution to this here book club is especially timely. For the past few weeks, the liberal commentariat has been having one of its perennial debates over whether the labor movement is dying and, if so, whether we should mourn its passing. This particular iteration of the old back-and-forth was kicked off by Bloomberg View columnist Evan Soltas, who argued that American unions are as good as dead and that's pretty much okay.

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“This is our $%&#-ing city!” bellowed David Ortiz, as he offered Boston’s stirring, unifying rejoinder to last year's horrifying Marathon bombing. From that moment forth, the team took its place at the center of Boston's recovery. And when the season ended at the pinnacle, with the Red Sox as World Series champions for the third time in a decade, the team’s “Boston Strong” theme was only tangentially about baseball. Obviously.

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When conservative Ohio Governor and former Lehman Brothers executive John Kasich feels compelled to remind his fellow conservatives that upon entering Heaven, “Saint Peter is probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small. But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor,” you know poverty has reached center stage.

From the homilies of Pope Francis, to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's (pictured) inauguration speech, poverty and its close cousin inequality are playing starring roles in the current political discourse. The President’s 2015 budget proposal, released earlier this month, calls for a significant increase in federal spending on anti-poverty programs, and while these proposals are likely DOA in the Republican-controlled House, Democrats across the land have promised to campaign on the issue leading up to the 2014 midterm races. This year, then, appears little different from much of 2013: the spotlight on poverty shows no sign of dimming.

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As progressives look with trepidation toward the midterm elections, there is naturally a renewed upsurge of complaints that the Obama administration — like the Clinton administration — has represented at best a series of pyrrhic victories for the left, and at worst a betrayal of the progressive cause. There’s been a tendency among left-leaning thinkers and writers to lump these arguments together and dismiss them as unrealistic or counterproductive. But in fairness, it is worth sorting them out, and also comparing them to similar grousing about the GOP on the right.

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Last month, the United Auto Workers (UAW) attempted to organize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The union failed. Media reports of organized labor’s demise have followed, with the debate divided between one camp that views the labor movement as beyond-resuscitation dead, and another that views the patient on life-support with only a slim chance of survival.

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It seems that ‘90s fashion isn’t the only trend from that decade back in style. Previewing his upcoming legislative proposals to reform American poverty programs, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently expressed his support for the 1996 welfare overhaul and affirmed his commitment to actually increasing work requirements for welfare recipients.

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In Vance v. Ball State University last year, the Supreme Court undercut workplace protections from harassment. With 25 percent of women and 10 percent of men reporting that they have experienced harassment in the workplace, these watered down protections leave workers who suffer harassment at greater risk and with fewer tools to challenge harassment when it happens. The Fair Employment Protection Act, introduced last Thursday by Senators Tammy Baldwin and Tom Harkin, and Representatives George Miller and Rosa DeLauro is urgently needed to restore strong protections from harassment on the job. Here’s why:

When supervisors harass they are abusing the power given to them by their employers. It can be very hard to say, “Back off!” or to report harassment by a supervisor, because workers know that if they do, their supervisor can make life hard for them, forcing them to work last-minute overtime or in unsafe conditions, forego lunch and bathroom breaks, or even firing them.

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This is part of TPM Cafe Book Club for Jake Rosenfeld's What Unions No Longer Do.

It may well be true that public sector union members are more likely to be college-educated than their private sector counterparts, but educational attainment is not the only measure of privilege. As Rosenfeld himself notes in chapter two of What Unions No Longer Do, women are far more heavily represented in public sector unions than in the labor movement writ large. But while public sector labor gets high marks for relative gender parity, the same cannot be said for racial diversity: In both government and private enterprise, black workers make up slightly less than 11 percent of all union members.

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