This post first appeared in the Demos PolicyShop blog.
Over the past four decades, business leaders have adroitly used that great American right, freedom of association, to advance their interests. They have banded together through groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Federal of Independent Businesses and the Business Roundtable to create a unified front on a range of issues — pooling hundreds of millions of dollars annually in membership dues for lobbying and advocacy. Beyond this, every last business sector in America has created its own trade association to push their particular interests. And each of these associations, too, has its own war chest of membership dues to hire lobbyists and PR firms. Business hasn’t just organized nationally, they’ve organized in states and localities — with their paid emissaries buzzing around every state capital and city hall in the nation.
Given all this, it was galling to read on Friday in The New York Times that powerful business groups are trying to subvert freedom of association by workers and their advocates — who are organizing together through worker centers and other kinds of new organizations. Now these groups are under attack by business. The Times writes:
After ignoring these groups for years, business groups and powerful lobbyists, heavily backed by the restaurant industry, are mounting an aggressive campaign against them, maintaining that they are fronts for organized labor.
In one case, a business group in Florida asked the state attorney general to investigate the finances of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which fights for some of the poorest and most mistreated workers in all of the United States. Indeed, labor conditions are so harsh down in parts of Florida that one of the Coalition’s priorities is to fight modern-day slavery, and with some success. The Coalition also recently staged a march by 100 workers who walked 200 miles to ask Publix supermarkets to pay more for tomatoes so farm workers could be paid more. Those workers now earn a poverty wage.
Think about that: 100 people walking for days under the Florida sun to get a raise. Now that’s freedom of association, as opposed to hiring a former Hill staffer for $300,000 a year to badger ex-colleagues with calls and emails. As for the Coalition’s finances, you can look at its most recent 990 yourself here: It had a whopping $3 million in revenues in 2011. K Street lobbyists probably drop that much money on power lunches on any given weekday.
The business attack on the new workers organizations has focused on how they are supposedly sidestepping laws governing union organizing.
Business groups argue that worker centers should face the same strictures as labor unions under federal law, including detailed financial disclosure, regular election of leaders and bans on certain types of picketing. Business groups say worker centers act like unions by targeting specific employers and pushing them to improve wages.
But again, what gall: If business hadn’t done so much since the 1970s to subvert the right to organize and hamstring union activities in workplaces — to say nothing of outright union busting — there wouldn’t be the same need for worker centers. Also, business groups themselves have been geniuses at finding their way around laws — say, on lobbying and campaign donations — by creating new kinds of entities that operate legally to achieve the same result. What, so loopholes are fine for the powerful but not the powerless? Seems like it should be the other way around.
Regardless, back to my original point: freedom of association is not just a quintessential American right, it’s a global human right, protected by international law. The past few decades has seen every conceivable interest group in US society get better organized — except for labor, and we’re all paying the price for that as inequality drags down the economy and erodes our democracy.
But things are finally changing, and business can’t stand it. Who came blame them? While we now live in an age where capital holds all the cards, more signs point to the rise of labor. It’s about time.