Sweeney: Congress, Stand Up for Workers

Posted May 14, 2009 at 2:06pm

Congress faces a host of critical issues right now — restoring a healthy economy, reforming health care, stabilizing climate change, regulating the financial sector, reforming trade policy and restoring our standing in the world.

These challenges represent more than a to-do list; they are a test of the power of government to make an impact on people’s lives. More importantly, they also represent an opportunity for lawmakers to restore balance to a system that is now tilted in favor of the titans of industry and is leaving working men and women to fend for themselves.

Will lawmakers stand with workers, or will they support powerful corporate interests? Will Congress side with the same corporate special interests that pushed for financial deregulation and put profits over the good of the country? Or will they stand with people who are working harder than ever while facing rising health care costs and stagnant wages?

Nowhere is this question starker than in the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act. The current labor law system is broken. Men and women who choose to come together to bargain for better wages and benefits often face intimidation and harassment from corporations. Government regulations that were originally designed to protect employees have become a shield for corporations who violate workers’ rights.

When a corporation finds out workers are seeking to form a union, it can demand a National Labor Relations Board election. Even if a majority of workers have reached consensus on their own, corporations can use the flawed NLRB election process to intimidate and pressure employees into voting against the union.

Congress can fix this problem by passing labor reform to give workers a real choice to form a union, increasing penalties against employers that violate the law and preventing corporations from thwarting workers’ choices.

Congress’ action — or lack thereof — on labor reform will be a benchmark for whether it is serious about making big business come to the table and share in the responsibility on other issues.

This same corporate responsibility will be needed to reform health care. The current health care system is expensive, inefficient, unsustainable and inhumane. Many working Americans are unable to get the quality care they need, when they need it, at an affordable price. Real reform must address the inefficiency and waste under our current system, ensure universal access, and provide quality and affordable health care.

Doctors, along with pharmaceutical and insurance companies and stakeholders, will need to come to the table to ensure that we are using the most effective treatments while giving doctors and patients the best information to make informed decisions about care.

We must create the conditions that allow for real competition that benefits consumers and patients, including the option of a public plan. This will also require shared responsibility, with consumers and employers paying their fair share and businesses offering affordable options that eliminate costly inefficiencies.

We are also counting on the president and Congress to begin the hard work of reforming U.S. trade policy. We can’t afford to keep trading away the interests of workers and their communities in order to advance the agenda of multinational corporations. Too many American jobs have gone overseas, while workers’ wages have eroded and our environmental and public-interest laws and regulations have come under attack.

The president has taken the first crucial steps toward addressing some of the glaring inequities in our tax code that actually reward companies for moving jobs offshore. But much more needs to be done: We also need to enforce our trade laws more consistently and effectively, including cracking down on currency manipulation, workers’ rights violations, and other unfair trade practices. And we need to take the time to conduct a comprehensive and strategic review of our current trade policy and agreements before we rush to implement new agreements based on the old model.

Already the president and Congress have begun to make clear that business as usual just won’t cut it. But there remain obstructionists who refuse to offer new ideas and instead say “no— to real solutions. Workers and their families deserve better. They deserve the change they voted for in the last election to be reflected through policy.

The AFL-CIO is committed to fighting for the men and women who lift up our economy and our nation. We hope that working people have an ally in the Members they elected to represent them. We know that if Congress stands with workers, then workers will continue to stand with them.

John Sweeney is president of the AFL-CIO, which represents 13 million active and retired workers.