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15 Oct, 2010 21:45

US unions clawless housecats to EU's labor tiger

In many parts of the world, organized labor is a force to be reckoned with in the streets and at the polls. Yet in the US, union leaders spend more time campaigning for candidates than defending workers’ rights.

The president of the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) embraced US President Barack Obama as they celebrated Labor Day together, a scene unimaginable for the majority of union leaders and members in Europe.

The proximity of major US labor unions to the Democratic Party has co-opted many of them into ineffectiveness.

"At the national level, they are hand and glove with the Democratic Party, and it makes it hard for them to push for the demands that we want," said Jon Liss, the director of Tenants and Workers United. "By and large, they have adopted a fairly uncritical relationship. They more or less will turn out the votes, give major donations but aren’t able to demand things they want."

"If we want something different than what’s been going on for the last 30 years, you have to push in a different direction rather than rolling with the dominant party."

Not familiar with many of the guarantees European workers both expect and demand, Americans are content to work longer weeks, more hours per year and without guaranteed paid time off and they rarely take to the streets to demand more labor rights.

So what will it take to get American workers in the streets? That remains to be seen.

Bill Fletcher, the chairman of the board of directors for the International Labor Rights Forum said that over the last 40 years the way in which the economy worked has changed, the understanding of how business and labor worked from 1945 on is no more.

The stagnation in the economy began moving against workers and taking back things that had been won over years of struggle, benefits, vacations, pay, etc,” said Fletcher.

The US is not mobilizing en masse like Europe because the movements in the US and Europe are made up of very different traditions. Unions in Europe are more active and prepared to always fight for their rights, whereas in the US leaders believed achievements in past were permanent and things would not change, explained Fletcher.

He described a conversation between himself and a wealthy relative who told Fletcher that when he takes over a new company with a union, he always destroys it.

Fletcher’s response; “Maybe what needs to happen is we, that is union people, need to move against people like you and set an example by taking you down.”

He explained the biggest crisis with unions in America today is the inability to organize workers because labor laws make it easy to fire or penalize workers for unionizing.

The Democratic Party and labor unions have a close relationship in the US. Fletcher argued that unions should be detached from the politicians, but be involved in policy to represent their workers. At times, union leaders are too busy campaigning and not fighting for their workers.