Robert Reich served in three administrations, most recently as Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. He is a professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and the author of twelve books, including The Work of Nations, Locked in the Cabinet, and Supercapitalism. This interview was conducted on June 2, via e-mail.
Surveys show that roughly 60% of American workers have expressed an interest in belonging to a labor union, yet national membership is barely over 12%. How do you explain that?
Two things: first, employers are using coercive (and often illegal) methods to discourage unions by intimidating workers, firing workers who organize or help in organizing, and delaying the legal process. Second, consumers favor lower-cost products made in states or countries that have lower-cost workers, often who are not unionized.
Did the EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act), which would have made joining a union much easier, ever have a realistic chance of passing? What was the main reason it failed, and do you see it passing in the future, even in a modified form?
It might have passed had it been high on the president’s agenda, and put in play within the first months of his administration. But it wasn’t high on his agenda. Once again, the leaders of organized labor got hoodwinked. It happened in the Clinton administration. It happened under Carter. Labor leaders support a Democratic candidate for president, and then are disappointed and surprised when he doesn’t come through.
Do you see the EFCA passing in the future, or has the opposition been sufficiently mobilized?
It could pass, but not in its original form. Perhaps a much speedier election process, coupled with heavier fines on employers that violated the NRLA.
Given that union jobs offer better wages and benefits, why is there so much hostility toward organized labor in the Deep South? Not just from southern politicians, but from regular working folks, those who could benefit most?
Other than in mining states that border on the south, the south hasn’t had a strong tradition of labor organizing. Race has interfered. In the 1930s through the 1950s, the peak years for the labor movement in the north, southern whites held back, worried that union organization would spread to blacks. Note also that the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner Act) did not cover agricultural or domestic workers. That was no accident. FDR didn’t want to antagonize southern politicians, who at that time were mostly Democrats.
In what ways could America’s labor unions improve or help themselves? What are they doing right, and what are they doing wrong?
They continue to make great strides among personal service workers, hospitals, hotel chains, restaurant chains, big-box retail chains, custodians, construction workers, and others who don’t have to worry about global competition or technological displacement. Many of these workers are very low paid, and they need unions. The biggest successes among industrial unions are in developing productivity or profit-sharing agreements, such that any contributions they make to the bottom line are shared between them and the company. The biggest mistake has been a failure to put enough resources into organizing, especially local personal service workers.
Wal-Mart, Inc, with nearly 4,000 stores in the U.S., all of them non-union, has been a thorn in labor’s side. A hypothetical question: If you were in charge, how would you make a run at them?
The only way is through old-fashioned organizing, while at the same time putting heat on Wal-Mart’s suppliers and customers.
Is there still a pro-labor sentiment among academics, or has the intellectual climate of the country shifted? And if it has shifted, is the phenomenon mainly “generational,” with younger academics being less sympathetic?
Most academics who think about it—who know labor history, understand the contributions unions have made to progressive legislation over the last century, and realize how much the decline in real wages among those without college degrees is attributable to the decline of organized labor—continue to be very supportive. But I think it’s fair to say that younger academics are less familiar with unions.
Is there any way for labor to engage the Tea Party movement via an appeal to “patriotism”? By reminding the TP’ers that, unlike union members—who earn every nickel of their wages in this country, and spend every nickel of it here—the Wall Street crowd has no allegiance to anything but the dollar?
Perhaps, but my impression is the Tea Partiers are mainly set against government rather than private centers of power and wealth in the nation.
Although the Democrats have long been regarded as the “party of labor,” that doesn’t seem to be true anymore. Why don’t more Democrats support organized labor? Is it a breach in ideology? A fear of being branded “pro-labor” by opponents?
Elected Democrats tend to reflect the values and aspirations of their constituents. Although organized labor is enormously important in many states—especially in the northeast and California—it is a less visible force in many others. I don’t see any fear of being branded as pro-labor except in very conservative states and in the Republican Party.
With the deindustrialization of America, is it too farfetched to expect our manufacturing base to make a comeback—even a modest one? What would be required for that to happen?
If by “manufacturing jobs” you mean old-fashioned assembly lines, they’re never coming back. All over the world they’re being replaced by automated equipment, numerically-controlled machine tools, and robots. In other words, technology is a bigger force displacing old manufacturing jobs than is globalization.
Given your familiarity with the international labor scene, what are the chances of an IWW-style worldwide labor movement emerging? Is such an ambitious endeavor even feasible?
It’s possible. But nations—even rich nations—face such different labor conditions, laws, and social safety nets that it’s hard to envision an international movement.
How do you think NAFTA, which was passed despite labor’s vehement opposition, has turned out?
NAFTA was over-feared and over-sold. Neither the bad consequences predicted came about (jobs didn’t go to Mexico; they went to China), nor did all the good consequences. (the U.S. didn’t have a huge export boom).
If you see NAFTA as being neither as harmful as its enemies predicted, nor as bountiful as its supporters promised, then what good has it done?
The peso crisis of 1998 would have been far more severe had NAFTA not been in place to calm global investors.
Finally, on a personal note, what are you most proud of having accomplished as Secretary of Labor, and what, if anything, do you most regret not having accomplished?
The Family and Medical Leave Act, the first minimum wage hike in many years, the Pension Protection Act, and the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. My biggest regret is not having been able to preserve more of Bill Clinton’s investment agenda from the deficit hawks, and build a more solid base of schooling and infrastructure for America’s hard-hit middle and lower-middle class.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org