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Ready to Do Battle: CWA Gears Up for Challenging Year Protecting Working Families

January 1, 2005
The Bush administration and GOP leaders in Congress may be buoyed by November's election but they're quickly going to learn that active union members have never shied from a challenge.

From the right to organize to saving the 40-hour workweek and protecting Social Security and family leave, CWA leaders, union colleagues and lawmakers - some moderate Republicans joining Democrats - say President Bush and corporate shills in Congress are in for a fight.

"We know it's an uphill fight right now, but that's precisely why we have to work harder than ever to protect working families against the assault on their rights and pocketbooks," CWA President Morton Bahr said. "Wages are down, long-term unemployment is up and the retirement safety net workers have counted on for generations could be jeopardized. We're not going to let that happen."

What follows is a look at a few issues that we expect you'll be hearing a lot about in 2005 - if not in the mainstream media, then certainly in the CWA News.

Social Insecurity
he Bush administration likes to talk about "reforming" Social Security. It's a code word for privatization.

What's wrong with that? It puts at risk a program that for 70 years has given older Americans the ability and peace of mind to retire after decades of hard work. It also aids deceased workers' children and disabled workers.

Now - to the glee of stockbrokers, financial planners and big business - President Bush wants Americans to roll the dice in the stock market with some or all of their Social Security

California Representative Bob Matsui, the ranking Democrat on the Social Security panel of the House Ways and Means Committee, said it's no surprise "that business groups are already scheming about how to get their hands on people's Social Security contributions."

Banks, financial service and insurance firms and all other business groups that would benefit from privatization are pressing the White House to move ahead now, and Bush indicated in his post-election news conference that he intended to do just that. The Center for Responsive Politics notes that securities and investment firms comprised the fourth-largest industry donor to the president's election campaign.

Not only is privatization risky for workers, it's costly to the country as a whole. On top of what is already the highest federal debt and deficit in history, the government estimates that shifting Social Security funds to private accounts will strip $1.7 trillion from the program over the next 10 years. That's money that goes toward checks for current retirees.

No one has said where the money would come from in the long transition period, although Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has suggested that the retirement age - already 67 for full Social Security benefits - could be raised to 70. As unpopular as the idea is, some lawmakers, policy makers and newspaper editorials are leaning toward it as a last resort.

Without any tinkering, the current program can afford to pay full benefits to all seniors, surviving children and spouses and disabled workers through 2042. Even after that date, with no changes made, benefits could be paid to all recipients at a 70 percent rate.

Presently, the Social Security program spends 1 percent of its funds on administrative costs. Compare that to the administrative costs for private insurance companies, whose investment fees range between 12 to 14 percent, according to the American Council of Life Insurance.

With regard to risk, Bahr said workers don't have to look any further than the billions lost in pension funds and 401(k)'s in recent years because of the illegal activities and subsequent financial collapse of such companies as Enron, Arthur Anderson, WorldCom and others.

The Economic Policy Institute says that one-third of all seniors rely on Social Security for 90 to100 percent of their income, and another third count on it for at least 50 percent.

"Imagine the devastation to these seniors and their families if even a portion of their Social Security income is lost in the stock market," Bahr said. "What are we as a society going to do to help them then?"

Millions More Uninsured?
Apparently 46 million Americans without health insurance aren't enough for President Bush.

Tucked in a series of sweeping plans for tax reform, and getting virtually no media coverage yet, is a proposal to cut the business deduction for employer-paid health plans.

"If you're trying to imagine the quickest way to create millions of uninsured people, that's it," said John Irons, associate director for tax and budget policy at the Center for American Progress.

Quoted in the online magazine Salon, one of the few media outlets that have reported the proposal, Irons said about 52 percent of people with health insurance have it through their employer. Without the tax benefit, he said, "I would expect a ton of companies to drop health insurance altogether. And that would throw their employees out on the mercy of the market."

According to a Washington Post article, the White House is also considering eliminating the deduction of state and local taxes on federal income tax returns.

Family Leave
A little short of breath? If you're an asthma sufferer and need to take time off to heal under the Family and Medical Leave Act, you may be out of luck. That is, if Republicans revive a bill that died with the 108th Congress.

Since President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, more than 40 million Americans have taken anywhere from a mere hour to up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave for illness, maternity - including adoption - or care of a seriously ill family member.

But midway through President Bush's first term, anti-worker forces in Congress introduced legislation backed by the business lobby to roll back FMLA benefits. Certain serious or chronic health conditions such as life-threatening asthma, diabetes or crippling arthritis could be excluded if Republican leaders get their way.

The bills would also limit workers' ability to use FMLA leave by requiring that they take it in four-hour chunks rather than in the smaller increments. Worst of all, the bills would force workers to choose between taking unpaid but job-protected FMLA leave or using employer-paid sick leave benefits, making them more vulnerable to dismissal.

While the FMLA "Clarification" Act failed to pass last time, CWA Chief Lobbyist Lou Gerber said, "CWA activists must be keenly aware that the GOP may still seek enactment of legislation that would weaken the act."

CWA is not just fighting to save FMLA benefits as they stand now, but to expand them. In the last session, Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) sponsored a bill to bring FMLA coverage to companies that employ as few as 25 workers in a 75-mile radius. Presently only companies with 50 workers or more must comply. The bill would also expand the act to allow workers time off to care for themselves or an immediate family member as a result of domestic violence.

A more recent bill introduced by Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) would expand FMLA to cover parents attending school events or taking care of family emergencies. It would also provide voluntary, universal pre-kindergarten, school breakfast for children who want it and dinner for students in after-school programs whose parents are working late.

Saving the 40-Hour Week
As hard as Democrats and some moderate Republicans in the House and Senate fought against it, the Bush administration's assault on overtime appears to be a victory for corporate America.

That doesn't mean that unions or worker-friendly lawmakers are giving up, but they are being practical. With larger Republican majorities now in both chambers, "There is very little chance of rescinding the new overtime pay rules via legislation," Gerber said. "Litigation may be pursued in some cases but that would not comprise 'overhauling' the regulations."

The new rules rollback the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which for the first time gave employees the right to a 40-hour workweek and time-and-half pay for additional hours. The changes give employers the power to reclassify an estimated 6 million workers, making them exempt from the law.

CWA took a lead in fighting the rule changes in 2003 and together with other unions succeeded in forcing the U.S. Department of Labor to purge some of the harmful language from the final version, which went into effect in September 2004.

Workplace Flexibility - for the Boss
Now union leaders say members will have to regroup and work just as hard to defeat comp-time legislation, another boon to employers that its backers are selling as "family-friendly."

"President Bush and those in Congress who support it call it 'workplace flexibility' and claim it will give workers more time to spend with their families," Bahr said. "In the bills we've seen, the flexibility belongs solely to the employers. Workers don't have any say in it."

The bill, called the Family Time and Workplace Flexibility Act, was introduced in 2004 by Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who is also responsible for last session's bill assaulting FMLA. Gerber said he expects a similar or identical comp-time bill will "rear its ugly head" in the session that convenes Jan. 3, 2005.

"Of special concern, the bill would authorize an employer to have employees work 50 hours in a week without paying a cent of overtime pay as long as the worker does not work more than 80 hours during a two-week period," Gerber said.

That means employers could get away without paying overtime one week as long as they limited hours the following week to 30. But doing so would be at the employers' discretion, not workers'.

Organizing Rights
While much of the Bush agenda affects workers at large, the administration has a special animus for labor unions and workers trying to organize.

One of the key issues unions will confront in 2005 is the Republican-dominated National Labor Relations Board's review of a case that could lead to the end of card-check agreements.

Thousands of CWA members have won representation through card check and neutrality agreements, in which employers - opting to minimize costs and confrontation - agree to recognize unions when enough workers sign cards of support. Employers also agree to remain neutral during the organizing campaign.

Union leaders say the agreements are one way of leveling the grossly unbalanced playing field that lets employers thwart organizing efforts with stalling and intimidation tactics, even outright firing of union supporters. If and when the NLRB sanctions employers, fines are literally a small price to pay to keep unions out.

"Voluntary recognition predates the National Labor Relations Act," CWA Executive Vice President Larry Cohen said. "In fact, it goes back to the 19th century and predates any labor law in any country. It's appalling that the Bush labor board feels justified in challenging this basic concept."

The case that could set devastating precedent for CWA and other unions involves the United Auto Workers' successful card-check campaign at two plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2003. Within weeks of the victory, anti-union employees backed by the National Right to Work Committee filed petitions with the NLRB to decertify the union.

The regional NLRB dismissed both cases, but the national board, in a party line vote last summer, agreed to review the case. It is expected to be on the docket next spring.

David Bonior, chair of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group American Rights at Work, said the NLRB's interference may expose them to more intimidation and harassment. "Workers who want a voice on the job need more protection, not less," he said.