A Minute With...

Robert Bruno, expert on the labor movement

11/19/2012  8:00 am

Robert Bruno is a professor of labor and employment relations at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. In an interview with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora, Bruno, also the director of the Labor Education Program at the U. of I. campus in Chicago, discusses what to expect from the labor movement in the wake of President Obama’s decisive re-election.

Organized labor delivered critical votes in swing states for President Obama’s re-election. What does that mean?

image of professor robert brunoThe labor turnout for Obama was 65 percent and those numbers were higher in some of the battleground states. In fact, it’s probably the highest spread for a Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson was elected in 1964, and it exceeds the margin during both of Bill Clinton’s White House runs. So this was certainly a substantial effort on labor’s part to get out the vote.

What I find interesting is that, post-election, there’s been a certain hold-the-president’s-feet-to-the-fire approach from labor, which is a vast difference from what happened four years ago. There was very little public organizing in the aftermath of the 2008 election. So it seems as though the national federation has learned from past disappointments, and they do not seem to be in a compromising mood over certain issues like entitlements, the need for increased tax revenue and a jobs bill.

The big three of entitlements – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – are being tipped as playing a major role in “fiscal cliff” negotiations with Republicans. Should labor leaders be worried about the president softening his position on entitlements after making numerous campaign promises to the contrary?

Well, he already has gone wobbly on entitlements before, specifically during the debt-ceiling negotiations during the summer of 2011. But Obama is conscious of the support he has received from labor, and he understands that they are organizing around preserving programs that working-class people rely on. And the political alignment isn’t such that it allows for much room for compromise on these issues. So I think there would be significant opposition if there were any deals involving the big three or surrendering on raising tax rates on the wealthy.

If there were even a hint of a grand bargain that shifted burdens onto workers or that harmed entitlements, labor would hold lawmakers accountable.

Labor seemingly made itself absolutely indispensable to Democrats in the battleground states. Does this signal a renewal of political strength?

Well, there’s revitalization and then there’s full recovery. Labor did very well in this election. In addition to the president, it backed a number of successful Democratic senators, and helped add allies in the House. It defeated anti-union legislation in California, although it fell short on a pro-collective bargaining measure in Michigan.

But it’s also true that Republicans gained ground in adding governors. With the exception of California, which has elected a Democratic super-majority, and wining the statehouse in Minnesota, political officials who are hostile to labor still predominantly run state governments, including in Wisconsin, where Republicans retook the senate.

But on balance, I do think there is a renewed sense of influence.

The other big labor-related story is a potential worker strike at Wal-Mart on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. What does that say about the labor movement when it feels emboldened enough to take on such a retail behemoth? 

It’s less about being emboldened than it is with labor’s experiment in organizing hard-to-organize workers. It shows that labor has been trying to come up with a structure that’s contemporary, one that fits with the modern economy, with how millions of people are working. But certainly, if you feel as though you hold some political influence, you’re going to feel like you have more room to operate.

With retailers like Wal-Mart, labor hasn’t done well in trying a traditional approach of getting workers to sign union cards or hold elections. They’ve been best at publicly shaming companies like Wal-Mart. But now we’re using the idea of a national boycott to try to find some way to be relevant to these workers. This is just another new way that the labor movement has been experimenting in order to reach new workers. And if you experiment enough, eventually one of them is going to hit. And I think labor is on to something in theses new models of representation.

One thing that’s interesting, from a labor perspective – a lot of the big box retail stores are not just opening their stores on Thursday at midnight, they’re opening Thursday evening. They’ve moved store hours up. And unless workers have real choice or they’re being paid a premium rate, this is an early holiday gift to worker advocacy groups, who will inevitably hammer the retailers about how it’s greater exploitation of these workers; about how it’s cutting into their family time on a day that used to be a paid day off.

I also think it’s conceivable that these hours have been moved up precisely because Wal-Mart is trying to avoid a big nasty scene of crowds forming to protest and boycott on Black Friday. By opening the stores up earlier on Thanksgiving evening, at a time when you think folks who are organizing these protests and boycotts wouldn’t want to physically show up at the store, you rob those folks of the good media attention they would get had they opened on Black Friday. You also take away some of the subtle pressure on customers to not walk into the store.


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