Friday, August 31, 2018

Unions face growing challenges on Labor Day

Labor Day comes this weekend.  It marks the end of the summer season

Somewhat lost in the final vacation days is the fact that is supposed to recognize the contribution of the American worker to the country’s economic success. 

Our system requires capital to be invested in the economy, but it also depends on the efforts of a large and effective work force.  Simply describing the system as capitalism, correct as far as it goes, leaves labor out.  So we have Labor Day.

As the celebration of the American labor movement fades, labor unions themselves seem to be losing ground.

Labor Day began a century and a half ago.  It was set in September to keep it away from May 1, an international labor day dominated by socialists and communists.  Oddly enough, May 1 had an American origin, the Haymarket Affair, a bloody labor conflict in Chicago around the demand for an eight-hour workday.

The organized labor movement grew and its influence expanded through World War II.  Federal legislation gave workers the tools to organize.  After the war, a reaction set in and some of those tools were limited by new federal laws.

The presence of union members in the private sector work force began declining six decades ago.  Not only did restrictive laws affect it, but labor gains would come more through the legislative process than through collective bargaining.  Working conditions were set by law.

The Maine referendum to set the minimum wage illustrates how labor matters have come to be decided through the political process.

Some widely publicized scandals also harmed organized labor.  Jimmy Hoffa, the chief of the Teamsters, became a nationally known figure for his criminal associations and served time in prison.

Unions also faced “right to work” laws.  Employers managed to get half the states to prevent workers from being required to join a union or pay dues even as they enjoyed the benefits of collective bargaining.  The obvious intent was to weaken organized labor.

Another factor after World War II was increased globalization.  Trade and production were less defined by national borders as production lines and markets became international.  That meant American workers would face competition from countries with far lower standards and costs as well as less environmental protection.

Some private sector unions learned how to adjust in providing their members access to good pay and job security.  But it became increasingly difficult and membership declined.

At the same time, public sector labor organizations grew.  While not able to strike, they bargained effectively for wages and job security.  Then, they began to face similar legislative obstacles to those in the private sector.  Recently, the Supreme Court ruled that non-members did not have to pay collective bargaining costs.

President Trump wants to make it easier to fire federal employees and to cut the amount of time that can be devoted to union activities.  Last week, a federal court overturned his executive orders.

Attempts to weaken unions can be expected to continue in both federal and state governments.

The underlying reason may not be simply to reduce labor costs and boost profits.  If unions are reduced in strength, they may not be able to play a strong role in politics.  The massive political spending by corporations and billionaires is justified by the claim they must match huge union spending.

In fact, unions contribute far less to political campaigns than their opponents.   Union members also increasingly have personal and political interests that are unrelated to union goals, and unions cannot deliver their votes.

The trends that have developed since Labor Day was created suggest that organized labor will win fewer battles at the bargaining table.   Just as corporations and their owners have resorted to legislative action, the unions are increasingly forced to do the same.

In the face of the well-financed opposition to their hard-won wages and working conditions, unions may have to step up their political operations even more.  Obviously, they must meet money with money, which may require more cooperation in political action among unions.   They need to get out the vote.

Unions will need to seek alliances with others with complementary interests.  That may mean compromise and taking a hard look at the effects of globalization and how to deal with it rather than believing it can be beaten back.  Of course, trade agreements must really be fair.  But they cannot be wiped out.

If Labor Day is not to fade away entirely, left only as an occasion for nostalgia, labor must continue facing up to new political realities. 

Friday, August 24, 2018

King Coal would kill Clean Power Plan

The flight from Boston to Los Angeles is about an hour longer than the flight back.  There’s a pretty simple reason.

The prevailing wind is from west to east.  On the way to Boston, it can literally push the plane along.

That wind can push almost anything along in that direction.  For example, it can send eastward to Maine and elsewhere in the Northeast pollutants from coal-burning plants in the Midwest.  The west wind knows nothing of state boundaries.

As part of the worldwide effort on global warming, the Obama administration adopted the Clean Power Plan to reduce the harmful effects caused by coal-fired power plants.  No effective way has been found to clean up emissions from burning coal, so inevitably the CPP meant using alternatives.

The CPP never went into effect officially.  Coal producing states challenged it, and, in 2016, the Supreme Court suspended it.  It’s fair to wonder if the Court will ever decide the case.

But states began acting as if the CPP were going to be approved.  More than 35 states are expected to reach the Plan’s goals.  About a dozen likely won’t.  All but one of them voted for Donald Trump.  The New York Times reports they produce 40 percent of the nation’s carbon emissions.

Those in compliance have increased the use of natural gas, as it has become more plentiful and less costly, and have experienced the growth of wind power.   The CPP has laid out the path to the future, and some states seek to meet its goals because it is politically popular to fight climate change.

The split in CPP compliance fits well with President Trump’s view on reducing federal power.  He would not prevent states from pursuing the Plan’s goals, but each state should be able to make its own decision.  Fifty different clean air policies would be all right.

Maine and the Northeast are sometimes called “America’s tailpipe.”  But the problem is even worse.  A tailpipe carries pollutants out of the vehicle, while power plant carbon emissions are dropped off within the country on their way out to sea.

The Trump proposal would mean that almost every state’s decision on the CPP would be felt beyond its borders.  The climate may grow dangerously warmer, but perhaps not in all states equally.  Air quality will be degraded in states to the east of the producers.

In effect, the Trump approach would be to take country back to where it was before the Constitution.  Then, the United States was an association of what were, legally, 13 independent countries.  The Constitution was drafted by states, because some issues required a unified, American policy.

From the outset, the Constitution required that states look at themselves as part of a national economy.  Political decisions on issues crossing state borders would have to balance divergent interests to produce an all-American result.

President Trump wants to encourage a rebirth of what, a century ago, a writer called “King Coal.”  Burning more coal may help the economy of some states, but at the cost of harming the health of others. 

The Trump plan itself acknowledges there will be more deaths and more lost school days than under the CPP.  Is slowing the reduction in coal use worth this price?

Environmental policy must take both sides into account.  Abandoning the goals of the CPP favors only one side.  Previously, as Congress focused environmental legislation on the national responsibility to promote improved air quality, it balanced interests. 

The Clean Air Act of 1970, produced by Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, created federal government environmental authority.  In 1990, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine led the effort to adopt the Clean Air Act Amendments, serving notice on coal-burning power plants.

Half a century or even 28 years is ample advance notice that coal-burning plants should be phased out.  Efficiency alone dictates that old coal-fired plants should be closed.

The 1990 law also limited auto emissions, based on a negotiated compromise with car makers.  Now the Trump administration wants to back off rules that mandate increased gasoline mileage to reduce emissions.

Trump would even force California, which had a major smog problem, to fall into line with his national mileage policy, requiring it to slash its own state rules.  This move would run directly counter to a policy allowing each state to set its own rule for coal emissions. 

The country needs a balanced policy to improve both national health and the national economy. Turning the clock back to favor only one side won’t serve the purpose.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Legislators should give less power to executive branch

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh says that regulators stray from congressional intent, and courts should no longer defer to their decisions. His opponents answer that strict adherence to the letter of the law would deprive the country of necessary expert interpretation.

Neither of them means exactly what they say.  Kavanaugh wants to cut back on regulators who aggressively interpret laws.  In contrast, courts can interpret broad general laws narrowly, trimming regulatory powers.  His approach results in a reduced role for government, possibly his true intention.

The opposition, composed mostly of Democrats, sees regulators as filling out policies that legislators adopted in broad outlines.  But the risk is that regulators may impose their own views.

Legislators do pass much of their responsibility to the executive branch and to regulators.  Here are three examples.

Last week, the U.S. announced that it was required by a 1991 law to impose sanctions on Russia for having used a deadly chemical to try to kill it owns citizens living in Britain.

After the recession, Congress told regulators to prevent banks from risking customers’ money in making investments.  But the regulatory process dragged on for years, allowing bank lobbyists to press for watering down the rules.  The lobbying worked.  Congress did nothing. 

Gov. LePage refused to allow bonds, approved by voters, to be issued.

These cases show legislators either required action as with chemical weapons or allowed 
executives or regulators considerable power.

The law on poisonous chemicals provides that the government must impose sanctions on a country when there’s proof that it used them.  No further judgment is allowed, though the president can waive some penalties.

The law on banks, passed by Democrats, gave regulators weak instructions and no time limits.  They caved to the banks and then a GOP Congress took no remedial action.

Maine voters have authorized public debt proposed by the Legislature.  The governor has administrative responsibility to manage the process. Unlike his predecessors, LePage has extended this role so he can veto the voters and block the borrowing.   The law gave him too much wiggle room.

Legislators often paint with a broad brush.  They expect regulators and judges to fill in the details that are necessary before their intentions can be put into operation.

Their excuse is that some matters are so complicated that the details have to be worked out by experts.  The result is that they allow unelected officials to make the rules that have to be followed.   Legislators may check to see that the rules follow the law, but often, especially in Washington, they don’t.

Congress also cedes its powers to the president.  It controls American trade policy and must approve tariffs on imports.  But it has taken to allowing the president broad tariff-setting authority in the belief that the chief executive will promote the interests of American consumers and exporters.

It allows the president this authority so it can avoid tough decisions that are sure to displease some American interests.  Avoiding the burden of decision is both more efficient and less likely to lead to members’ defeat at the ballot box.  It is not leadership.

This broad grant of authority to the president has now produced big problems. Trump sees tariffs as an instrument of foreign policy, a sort of war without cannons, rather than as a key element of economic policy.  To him, winning means having a favorable trade balance with another country.

“Tariffs are the greatest,” he says, because he doesn’t need approval from anybody else to raise them.  Using tariffs as an instrument of war, Trump pays little attention to their economic effect on Americans or to retaliation by other countries. 

Legislators could drop their broad brush and start paying closer attention to the details of what they are enacting.  Or else, they need to adopt policies that can be applied exactly as adopted without leaving the details to administrators who are invisible to the public and difficult to hold responsible.

They also should refrain from ceding their legislative powers to the executive.  They can keep more decisions for themselves and describe in greater detail the limits on the scope of executive powers they create.  Laws should be more specific in describing exactly legislative intent and allow fewer exceptions.

Then, the powers of the president to set tariffs would be sharply reduced.  The ability of the Maine governor to place his will above a decision of the voters would be banned. 

The era of pious hopes about the good and fair judgment of executive officials has ended.  Legislatures should legislate.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Will Trumpism, emerging as new party, kill traditional GOP?

“Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

Rufus Miles, a federal official, created this contribution to American political folklore.  Because each party’s members in the House and Senate sit together, they usually vote together.  He suggested they should be mixed together to promote compromise.

Of course, his proposal was not adopted.  But his point is correct.  Party loyalty runs strong in both houses of Congress, making compromise more difficult.

The problem has become more complicated since the 2016 elections.  President Trump, nominally a Republican, attacks Democrats, reducing the chances of bipartisan compromise. But he doesn’t spare Republicans, leading many of them to quit Congress.

Within the GOP, the extreme right wing of the party, loyal to Trump, battles traditional conservative politicians.  While the Democrats are used to having a “big tent” to accommodate a variety of views, the Republicans seem unable to find a way to be similarly inclusive.

House Speaker Paul Ryan allows the Trump backers to dominate the Republicans.  Trump bears the party label and draws support from a majority of Republicans across the country.  At least some of his policies are popular with most GOP supporters. 

But his trade policy, attitude toward minorities, position on abortion and soft spot for Russian President Putin, has led a significant share of the congressional Republicans to oppose him while avoiding outright conflict.

The result is that some suggest the complicated American political quagmire can only be ended by a new political party, composed of moderates from both parties.  Part of this political dream is that Sen. Susan Collins will become a leader of the new party.  Collins would have to leave the GOP, because it has clearly left her. 

But there is no need to create a new third party.  It already exists.

First, there are the Democrats, the country’s oldest party.  Over its history it has been able to serve as political home to office holders ranging from racists to militant minority leaders. 

Pundits who worry that the party’s split between standard liberals and Democratic Socialists will doom it at the ballot box miss the fact that the party could accept both at the same time.  That’s its tradition.

Then, there are the traditional or moderate Republicans.  They support small government and less government regulation of business.  But they also would provide help to the less fortunate and recognize climate change.  They focus relatively little on wedge issues like guns, abortion and same sex marriage.

Finally, there is the new party, which might be called the Trumpism, because its members are largely defined by their allegiance to President Trump.  He rejects policies that have been built by compromise between Republicans and Democrats.  He also seeks to be a more authoritarian chief executive.

The November elections are expected to reveal the relative strength of the three parties.  Will the Democrats sweep Congress and the Maine Legislature in reaction to Trump and Gov. LePage, his state-level look-alike, and their Republicans loyalists?  Will Trumpism prevail?

According to polling, the Democrats could pick up the many seats they need to control the U.S. House and might hold on to enough to threaten Republican control of the Senate.

Or will the Trump and LePage approach be confirmed by voters?  In Maine, now reasonably evenly divided on Trump, would they elect GOP candidates for governor and the Second District member of Congress?

Because Collins and her moderate Republican colleagues really don’t want either Democratic control or Trumpism confirmed, this may be just the right moment to get organized, publish their own manifesto and endorse the candidates they can support, just as Trump backs his candidates.

If moderate Republicans remain on the sidelines, they risk being eliminated.  Look at the Maine GOP, previously led by people who focused on the economy and the environment.  They respected referendum results and paid the state’s bills.

In this year’s Republican primary for governor, all four candidates were LePage backers.  Not one of them was a natural ally of Susan Collins. Where have all the moderate Republicans gone?

Today’s three parties could soon return to the traditional two, but not the traditional twosome.
If the Democrats sweep in November or come close to it, the country and the state may end up with two parties,  a “big tent” Democratic party and an angry, right-wing Trumpism party, focused on continuing to repeal the progress produced by compromise.