- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Labor unions plan to rally today in front of the Department of Labor as they seek to shore up their declining membership and finances.

Union leaders plan to criticize Bush administration policies they say undermine organized labor.

They are trying to build support for legislation introduced in the Senate last month that would make it easier for workers to join unions and punish employers who interfere.

The rally is one of 90 pro-union events nationwide in 38 states that coincide with International Human Rights Day today.

“It’s absolutely a travesty that workers in this country have effectively lost their right to join unions,” said Lane Windham, spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO national labor federation.

Union membership has dropped to 13 percent nationwide, down from a high of 20 percent in 1983.

The falling membership and dues hit the federation directly when it was announced that AFL-CIO employees chose to take two days of unpaid leave this year rather than face layoffs to offset lost revenue. The employees can take the days whenever they want.

Last week, two national unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Association of Flight Attendants, announced they would merge with larger unions after their political strength diminished.

Unions blame Bush administration policies they say favor employers as well as the loss of unionized jobs to foreign competitors.

“I think the Bush administration has shown itself time and time again to be antiworker,” Miss Windham said.

The Bush administration denies the accusation.

“The administration is committed to working with anyone who wants to work to advance the president’s agenda for creating an environment where jobs can be created for American workers,” said Claire Buchan, White House spokeswoman.

Labor Department spokes-man Ed Frank said, “The Department of Labor is not here to be pro-union or pro-business. We’re here to be pro-worker.”

Nevertheless, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has said his political strategy for the next presidential election is to replace President Bush with a Democratic rival.

Mr. Sweeney criticizes the Bush administration for proposed changes in overtime laws he says would strip eight million hourly workers of overtime pay. The Bush administration disagrees, saying the changes would extend overtime pay to 1.3 million more low-wage workers.

The AFL-CIO also criticizes the federal government’s tendency to contract work of government workers to private employers and the refusal of the Bush administration to allow airport-security screeners to organize unions.

Unions are pinning their hopes on the Employee Free Choice Act introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, that would force employers to bargain collectively with a union anytime a majority of employees sign forms certifying they authorize the union to represent them.

The bill would abolish the need for months-long election campaigns at job sites before workers vote on whether to be represented by a union.

It also would fine employers up to $20,000 each time they try to interfere with organizing.

Currently, “There aren’t fines,” Miss Windham said. “If you dump something in a stream, you have to pay a fine. We don’t have that in labor law.”

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which recently endorsed presidential candidate Howard Dean, former Vermont governor, plan to attend the rally.

Also planning to attend are employees of Sterling Cleaners and Textile Services, one of the District’s largest industrial laundries.

The company’s employees remain on strike after a September walkout prompted by a dispute with their employer involving union organizing.

The workers say the Employee Free Choice Act would make it easier for them to bargain collectively for wages, working conditions and benefits.

“All you need to do is get a majority of signatures,” said Evelyn Thomas, a dry-clean presser at the laundry. “Then you wouldn’t have to go through this hardship.”

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