Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Labor of Love: No rest for these union activists

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Most of us will sleep in on Labor Day. Not the Southern Maine Labor Council, who will be working hard to remind us what the holiday's actually all about.

They'll start at the ungodly holiday hour of 8 am with a breakfast at the Maine Irish Heritage Center hosted by the Southern Maine Labor Council, the Western Maine Labor Council, and the Metal Trades Council. After 45 minutes of chow, they'll head upstairs for a labor-music performance by Nine to Nine, a singing group with an odd name for union types. There will also be an exhibit of photos by Brunswick-based documentary photographer Guy Saldanha, who has visited and photographed labor sites around the world, and across Maine.

The big attraction, though, will be Wilma Liebman, a woman whose name most of us haven't heard. She's the chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, who will be receiving the "Working Class Heroine Award" for her efforts on behalf of workers' rights.

Liebman, one of only two serving NLRB members (three seats are vacant), has spent 12 years on the board, and was chosen by President Obama to lead it shortly after he was inaugurated.

We caught up with her on the phone from Washington DC last week, just as she was heading to Australia to deliver a keynote address at the 19th World Congress of the International Society for Labor and Social Security Law.

She holds out hope for unions not just in the workplace (and notes that the percentage of organized workers in the private sector is in "obvious decline") but in the nation's public sphere, calling union activism "a political counterweight to the political influence of corporations."

While not taking a stand on the Employee Free Choice Act and other labor-related legislation (the board, as a quasi-judicial body, stays out of legislative debates), Liebman says she hopes "things will not be made worse between labor and management."

As far as general principles, she says seeking a balance between corporate and individual power is "both a matter of democracy and a sound economy." Specifically, "if you address the inequality" that exists in society, then increased purchasing power for workers will help boost the economy out of the recession.

At the moment, she says, she sees a sort of "holding pattern," in which everyone is mostly waiting for the outcome of the legislative process. Key to the success of whatever law is passed, Liebman says, is shared understanding. "If the business community could acknowledge that workers have rights — not just to a voice in the workplace but to a standard of living," and labor can recognize "the terrible competitive pressures" of doing business today, both will be better able to work together.

But as the agency tasked with making sure they do, the NLRB is facing its own "crisis of confidence," she says. Three board members' terms expired in December 2007; George W. Bush made three appointments; the Senate never acted. Obama made three nominations in July, but the Senate has been busy with other business.

In the meantime, Liebman says, "our authority to act as a two-member board has been challenged in several circuit courts." Though she and fellow board member Peter Schaumber have nearly 500 decisions with no other members available, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in May that the two-person body did not have the power to make rulings. Three other federal appeals courts, including the Boston-based 1st Circuit, have ruled that it does. The matter is likely to go to the Supreme Court to be resolved.

Portland Labor Day Breakfast | September 7 @ 8 am | Maine Irish Heritage Center, 34 Gray St, Portland | $25 | 207.892.4067