So, everyone watched President Obama’s speech yesterday. Here’s a part that labour lawyers might have noticed:
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end….
Nor, is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.
So, two things there. One: we will look at our laws and programs and ask if they work. If they don’t, they will be changed or eliminated. Two: what matters is not just GDP, but how wealth is distributed. Conclusion: since the U.S. has the worst income equality gap of all OECD countries, while it generates vast wealth for a relatively few at the top of income ladder, our economic and labour market model isn’t working. It needs to be changed, so that the disappearing middle class can be reinvented.
How does Obama intend to do that? What does seem clear is that he believes reversing the decline in union density is key. American Workplace Law Prof blog posted Obama’s comments about this from a recent interview. Even stronger language in favour of changing the law to make it easier for unions to organize new workers appears in his book, The Audacity of Hope (p. 215):
To help workers gain higher wages and better benefits, we need once again to level the playing field between organized labor and employers. Since the early 1980s, union have been steadily losing ground, ot just because of changes in the economy but also because today’s labor laws–and the make-up of the NLRB–have provided workers with very little protection. Each year, more than twenty thousand workers are fired or lose wages simply for trying to organize and join unions (Editiorial note: hmmm, kind of like Wal-Mart employees in Canada!). That needs to change. We should have tougher penalties to prevent employers from firing or discriminating against workers involved in organizing efforts. Employers should have to recognize a union if a majority of employers sigh authorization cards choosing the union to represent them. And federal mediation should be available to help an employer and a new union reach agreement on a contract within a reasonable amount of time.
Stronger penalties for unfair labour practices, card-check based union certification, and first contract arbitration. More unions, stronger unions equals greater income distribution, less poverty, and more social and economic prosperity. That was the philosophy that drove much of the New Deal legislation and the Wagner Act back in the 1930s. What’s old is new again.
Of course, if Obama implements these changes to U.S. labour laws, what will our neo-conservative friends in Canada do, after so many years of arguing that Canadian labour laws need to be gutted to keep Canada “competitive” (read: ‘our labour laws must be as weak as the U.S.’s)? A whole generation of Fraser Institute ‘economists’ and their corporate sponsors have been preaching their entire lives about how Canada should follow the American lead and discourage unions and collective bargaining. Whatever will they do now.
Seriously though, do you agree with Obama’s stated intention to revitalize U.S. labor law in order to facilitate more and stronger unions? Should Canadian provinces too move in this direction by, for example, reinstating the card-check model of union recognition here? These are great times to be a labour law professor (except for the fact that I have no students at the moment!)