Organized labor played a huge role in the 2006 mid-term elections, and is now expecting a return on its investment. According to this AP report, the AFL-CIO alone spent more than $40 million, and organized labor ran a huge get out the vote effort "with 187,000 union volunteers in the AFL-CIO program knocking on more than 3 million doors in the final four days." And the effort paid off:
Union workers voted Democratic in the House races, 67 percent to 30 percent. And others in union households voted almost as strongly Democratic, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the networks.
As for what they want in return, the article says organized labor's legislative agenda includes:
- Changes in the Medicare prescription drug program to introduce price negotiations with pharmaceutical companies.
- Changes in bankruptcy laws that allow companies to abandon pension and health care commitments to workers.
- Trade agreements that protect workers' rights.
- Improved mining safety laws.
- Increased retirement protections.
- Expanded health care.
This is in addition to raising the federal minimum wage, one of labor's top priorities. It should be noted that these broad initiatives will help improve the lives of all American workers and their families, not just union members.
On two of these issues -- price negotiations with pharmaceutical companies and expanded health care -- labor may find some of that "common ground" with corporate America that President Bush talked about with regard to raising the minimum wage. Large employers (think GM and Wal-Mart) are coming to the realization that our health care system is broken, they are bearing most of the burden, and it's hurting the bottom line and making them less competitive. This is nothing new, as this Washington Post article from February 2005 illustrates:
American manufacturers are losing their ability to compete in the global marketplace in large measure because of the crushing burden of health care costs, General Motors Corp. chairman and chief executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr. said yesterday as he called on corporate and government leaders to find "some serious medicine" for the nation's ailing health system.
In a speech at the Economic Club of Chicago, the auto executive, who is responsible for providing health insurance for more people than any other private employer in the nation, graphically detailed how rising medical bills are eating into his company's bottom line and ultimately threatening the viability of most U.S. firms.
"Failing to address the health care crisis would be the worst kind of procrastination," Wagoner said, "the kind that places our children and our grandchildren at risk and threatens the health and global competitiveness of our nation's economy."
After spending several years on the health policy sidelines, Wagoner is launching a mini media blitz, hoping the competitiveness argument will be the one that finally prompts lawmakers to take on an increasingly expensive system rife with inefficiencies and inequities. Wagoner said he intends to press his case personally in Washington and with the nation's governors.
Corporate America also has a stake in trade agreements, although they are more concerned about leveling the playing field in terms of currency manipulation than they are human rights issues. But perhaps business and labor can find common ground on this, too. In fact, automakers are reaching out to Democrats for help according to this Washington Post article:
They won't celebrate in public, but the Big Three domestic automakers are hoping that Democratic control of the U.S. House and perhaps the Senate will bring a government that's more responsive to their plight as they fight for business with Asian competitors.
Top U.S. auto executives have grown increasingly frustrated with the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress on energy policies, health care costs, currency manipulation by other countries and protection of intellectual property.
[..]No one is expecting major changes with Democrats holding only a narrow majority in the House, but still, changes could be coming.
"None of this is a slam-dunk for anyone, but I think our prospects on the issues ... are a lot better," said Alan Reuther, legislative director for the United Auto Workers union, which has sought incentives for flexible-fuel vehicles and help for manufacturers on health care costs for retirees.
[..]Democrats say nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs have been lost since Bush took office as companies continue to move production to low-wage countries, driving up the trade deficit.
Levin predicted that Democrats in Congress will try to prod Bush into taking action with the World Trade Organization against countries that throw up barriers to imports of American goods.
American manufacturers say China is keeping its currency artificially low against the dollar to make Chinese goods cheaper in the U.S. and American-made products more expensive in China.
"I think corrective action ought to be taken, particularly on the currency manipulation," said Rep. Paul Gillmor, R-Ohio, whose district includes numerous manufacturers. "They must think we're fat, dumb and happy the way we sit back and let them take advantage of it."
The bottom line is that corporate America is realizing that progressive policies that protect workers right's and improve the lives of all Americans are good for business, too. Perhaps they also noticed that American workers, who are also consumers, have reached the boiling point and their anger spilled over into the mid-term elections. As Senator-elect Jim Webb of Virginia says in this WSJ editorial:
America's top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools; fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars. They own most of our stocks, making the stock market an unreliable indicator of the economic health of working people. The top 1% now takes in an astounding 16% of national income, up from 8% in 1980. The tax codes protect them, just as they protect corporate America, through a vast system of loopholes.
[..]In the age of globalization and outsourcing, and with a vast underground labor pool from illegal immigration, the average American worker is seeing a different life and a troubling future. Trickle-down economics didn't happen. Despite the vaunted all-time highs of the stock market, wages and salaries are at all-time lows as a percentage of the national wealth. At the same time, medical costs have risen 73% in the last six years alone. Half of that increase comes from wage-earners' pockets rather than from insurance, and 47 million Americans have no medical insurance at all.
Manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Many earned pension programs have collapsed in the wake of corporate "reorganization." And workers' ability to negotiate their futures has been eviscerated by the twin threats of modern corporate America: If they complain too loudly, their jobs might either be outsourced overseas or given to illegal immigrants.
There's more. It's tough talk, but it seems to express the frustrations of American workers that, along with a general dissatisfaction with the current leadership in Congress and concerns about foreign policy, were reflected in the outcome of the election.
At any rate, it is quite fascinating that only one week after the mid-term elections there is suddenly open, thoughtful, and generally more balanced dialogue on these issues than has occurred over the past six years. Perhaps one lesson here is that when divisive divisive partisan rhetoric and stubborn refusal to engage in constructive dialogue are removed from the political equation, America always finds a way to get down to business and get things done.