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KI Capitol Hill Briefings Commence

June 21, 2010

This year, the Kalmanovitz Initiative inaugurates a new series of briefings on labor policy for those following workplace issues on Capitol Hill and within the world of labor advocacy.

Historian Nelson Lichtenstein

Kicking off the series was a lunch briefing on “Rethinking Labor Policy: History and Prospects,” held on Wednesday, May 26 at Georgetown Law Center. The event featured keynote speeches by noted labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Emily Stewart of the United Food and Commercial Workers. The capacity audience at the Hotung conference room included many labor and welfare advocates, attorneys, policy analysts and Congressional legislative assistants, who provided a variety of professional insights during the lively question and answer session.

The program began with opening remarks by Professor Joseph McCartin, executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative, and Dr. Jennifer Luff, who welcomed guests and laid out an overview of the briefing series. McCartin explained that the series aims to analyze workplace issues in such a way as to challenge conventional wisdom and facilitate conversation among those engaged in workplace issues from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints – bridging the worlds of academic research and professional practice. The inaugural briefing set the tone for this synthesis, featuring two unique perspectives from a history professor and a union organizer on what Americans can expect about the future of labor in the United States.

KI Research Director Jennifer Luff

Professor Lichtenstein spoke first, on the topic of national labor policy in the United States since the New Deal. Dr. Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UCSB, detailed the sometimes fraught relationship between organized labor and Democratic party politics and how this relationship has changed over time. The Dixiecrat split saw organized labor transform politically from a crucial linchpin for New Deal liberalism to a marginal actor in an ideologically ambiguous Democratic Party, which accompanied a breakdown of tripartite agreements and a depoliticization of union activity generally in the postwar era. This history helps to explain how the most apparently labor-friendly administration and Congress in half a century has been, paradoxically, hamstrung and incapable of delivering on a host of policies demanded by organized labor – whether labor law reform, immigration reform or health care reform with a robust public insurance option. Nevertheless, Lichtenstein noted the growth of unions in the public sector and service industries has informed a political re-awakening that seeks to engage both the state and employers in ways removed from classical corporatism.

If Lichtenstein’s remarks grounded the national labor policy debate in its historical context, Emily Stewart brought it to the present day. As Special Assistant to the Director of Organizing at the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union, Stewart spoke of both challenges and promises of organizing in the new economy – in which union growth is shifting to traditionally non-union friendly low-wage jobs in which women and immigrant workers predominate. As an example of a successful organizing drive, Stewart cited the 15 year struggle by Smithfield workers to organize the world’s largest pig slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina. The mix of legal pressure, community outreach and solidarity between the black and Latino workers eventually overcame their employer’s resistance to their demands to form a union. Stewart said unions will have to overcome racial divides, new flexible and subcontracted workplace relations and the greater assets of companies if they wish to succeed in organizing workers in the future.

Emily Stewart of UFCW

Emily Stewart of UFCW

A lively question and discussion period that followed capped off the event, with audience members speaking of declines in union sympathy among the general public as traditionally unionized industries have shrunk. Lichtenstein and Stewart cautioned that the union movement is not precisely in decline but transforming, citing examples of other recent innovative and successful unionization campaigns among hotel and building service workers. Audience members were invited back for future briefing sessions sponsored by the Kalmanovitz Initiative.

Guest Blog by Michael Paarlberg

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