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Labor Pains Ahead For White House?

In her latest Political Points column, CBS News' Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch suggests President Bush may witness less support for his 'compassionate conservatism' if the down economy continues to foment pro-labor feelings among the general public.

George W. Bush cut his summer vacation a bit short (leaving him three days shy of Richard Nixon’s record 30-day vacation in 1969), coming back to Washington for a day and a half of meetings before taking off for Camp David for the holiday weekend. Mr. Bush said his batteries were charged and he was raring to go, but that American workers face the fall with increasing anxiety about the economy and their workplaces.

The AFL-CIO labor union released a survey this week indicating that 68 percent of workers believe their rights in the workplace need more protection, and a increasing majority claims that management has too much power. Sixty-three percent say they have “just some” or “not much” trust in employers to treat employees fairly and 56 percent (up 12 points since 1996) say new laws are needed to hold corporations to a higher standard of responsibility toward workers.

The survey of 1,792 working adults (business owners were not included) between July 5-9, 2001, was done for the AFL-CIO by Peter Hart Research. The majority said their own economic situation was good although minorities and high tech workers expressed concerns about job security. Geoff Garin, who presented the results Thursday in Washington, said that the headline from the results is that workers don't think their employers are as loyal anymore. Looking at the last five years of economic good times, Garin said workers believe the people who benefited are the employers and the stockholders; looking ahead to an economic slowdown, workers think they will be the ones to sacrifice.

Garin says that in the focus groups he’s been conducting recently “all people talk about is their 401(k) accounts. They haven’t accumulated what they thought they would,” and they are very concerned about not having enough for retirement.

Some of the most intriguing results of the survey were the responses to questions about what rights people think they have at the workplace.

Phantom Rights

Percentage who (incorrectly) say employers cannot legally take these actions:
  • Firing an employee for expressing a political view: 80 percent
  • Refusing to hire someone because genetic testing reveals he or she is at risk for health problems: 67 percent
  • Listening in on an employee’s personal phone call without the employee’s knowledge: 66 percent
  • Firing an employee with a good performance record without giving a good reason: 64 percent
  • Refusing to provide sick leave to employees: 60 percent
  • Using video cameras and tape recorders to monitor employees without their knowledge: 55 percent
    Upwards of 80 percent o workers say that these actions, which, in fact, are not illegal unless specific contracts prohibit them, are unacceptable to them.

    One right workers do have, and which the public is aware of, is the right to organize and join a union. But, says AFL-CIO public affairs chief Denise Mitchell “this is a very, very hard thing to accomplish.” The union’s president, John Sweeney, racked up an impressive record for organizing new workers when he headed the Service Employees International Union and was elected head of the AFL-CIO six years ago promising to increase the focus on organizing and pump up union membership. But, after a few years of increases, membership in 2000 fell to 13.5 million members, 9 percent of the workforce. In addition the 500,000-member carpenters union left the AFL-CIO, though Sweeney feels he may be able to woo them back.

    Sweeney’s biggest success has been making the union movement into a modern political force and he seems to be guaranteed re-election when the AFL-CIO meets in Las Vegas in December. Another poll done by the Associated Press (August 22-26, 1,010 adults) shows the public more sympathetic toward unions than they were just two years ago. By a 50 percent to 27 percent margin they say they side with unions over corporations in labor disputes and general approval of labor unions is 3-1 positive, a substantial increase over the 2-1 positive rating they received 20 years ago. Union officials are particularly pleased that younger people are positive toward unions. And, the number of all adults saying unions were too strong has diminished from 33 percent to 22 percent.

    As George W. Bush and his countrymen celebrate Labor Day and officially get back to work, the political climate is dicey. Rebate checks have been cashed or banked but the public is increasingly nervous about the economy and still unsure of the ability of the President to make things better for them. They are suspicious of corporations and believe the Bush administration is closer to them than to their workers. As Mr. Bush tries to push the compassionate part of conservatism, he will face an increasingly skeptical public.

    ©MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved

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