Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Obama's Not Alone: Inviting Cities to the Labor Day Barbecue

September 2nd, 2009 | Amy Traub

(Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

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We always knew it would take a fight to enact the kinds of sweeping reforms we need to fix the economy so that it really works for working Americans. The Employee Free Choice Act was never set to sail through Congress without opposition from the nation’s most anti-union employers. No one expects that it will be much easier to repair our broken immigration laws, overhaul flawed trade policy, improve retirement security or ensure that parents can finally afford time off work to welcome a newborn. But the sheer nastiness of the health care reform fight begs the question: if even modest reforms are this difficult for a popular Democratic President with large majorities in both chambers of Congress, how will we ever achieve the economic restructuring the nation needs?

One way to improve the odds that working people will have more to celebrate on Labor Days to come is to ensure that our cities get a special invitation to the national policy conversation. Picture it as a giant nationwide barbecue: gathered around the grill, cities can share local policy victories that have measurably improved the lives of their own residents – and can provide a successful model for other cities and for national action. Raising the profile of proven local policies may make the reforms proposed in Washington feel a lot less lonely.

San Francisco can share its own universal health care model, which currently provides 45,000 uninsured city residents with access to affordable primary and preventive care, prescriptions and lab tests through city clinics and participating private hospitals. The track record of Healthy San Francisco, as the program is known, should be informing the national health care debate to a far greater extent than it is.

While they’re talking health, the City by the Bay can also recount its experience guaranteeing everyone employed in the city the opportunity to earn paid sick days – a policy that is projected to reduce costs and improve public health and has not increased unemployment. Washington DC and Milwaukee have already passed weaker versions of this policy. Now New York City is looking to emulate San Francisco’s success. Examples like these can boost national legislation like the Healthy Families Act which would let working people nationwide stop having to make the untenable choice between their health and a needed paycheck.

Minneapolis could also pipe up. The City of Lakes insists that when they provide subsidies for economic development, companies that get public money need to create living wage jobs. The successful policy is a vivid example to cities across the country which regularly provide lucrative private tax breaks only to lure poverty-level jobs.

Then there’s New York, where grassroots organizations citywide have teamed up with the State Department of Labor to educate employees and employers about workplace laws and identify cases where employers are illegally cheating their workers out of pay. The program, known as New York Wage Watch has attracted national controversy because it enlists unions in the effort to detect illegal activity by employers. The debate provides a perfect opportunity to consider which poses a greater threat to the country: the pervasiveness of employers stealing employee wages or the potential for groups – which have no special power to look at a company’s books or confidential documents – to intrude on private business as they uncover illegal activity? Lawbreakers may be right to fear that this local education and monitoring effort could go national.

Finally, Los Angeles should join the party. Home to the nation’s busiest seaport, Los Angeles realized it would never significantly improve air quality as long as the dirty diesel trucks servicing the port were owned by overstretched independent operators without the resources to buy or maintain cleaner vehicles. The city took bold action to both clean up the trucks and transform the drivers from exploited independent contractors into employees with a chance of improving their own working conditions. Not surprisingly, national business interests don’t like the idea of port truckers unionizing. But other port cities are considering the policy, with the potential to improve the quality of both air and jobs.

Federal policy battles cannot be won in a vacuum. Cities and towns across the country demonstrate the success of policies that improve the lives of working people. This is one Labor Day barbecue we should all attend.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Her studies focused on comparative political economy, political theory, and social movements. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers. She has also been active on the local political scene working with progressive elected officials. Amy resides in Manhattan Valley with her husband.

This blog was originally written for DMI Blog for Labor Day 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

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