Labor and Employment Policies in the US Election 2008 and the Upcoming Legislative Agenda

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Clark, Jennifer
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The focus of the 2008 Presidential Election in the United States turned from foreign policy to domestic economic policy in response to the global financial crisis and its mounting effects on the US financial, housing, and labor markets. In recent elections, labor policy has not explicitly been at the forefront of campaign issues or political debate. Indeed, parsing out the policy positions of the 2008 presidential candidates, Senator Barack Obama (Democrat, Illinois) and Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), required delving into an array of issue areas and proposed legislation that often fell under headings loosely related to what is generally understood as "labor policy" by academics and labor and industrial relations professionals. Neither Senator Obama nor Senator McCain listed labor policy or employment policy as major issue areas on their candidate websites. However, Senator Obama and Senator McCain held opposing positions on specific employment and labor policies which reflected both their individual policy orientations toward labor and employment policy and the historic oppositional positions of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. The opposing positions of the US presidential candidates on labor policy reflected different perspectives on the role of government in economic security and the regulation of the employment relationship. The Democratic Party has historically supported a pro-worker agenda including legal and regulatory support for labor organizing and collective bargaining, income security through job protection, minimum wages, workplace-based health and retirement benefits for workers, and the regulation and/or prohibition of discriminatory practices in hiring, promotion, compensation, and firing (particularly related to race and gender and more recently inclusive of sexual orientation and immigration status). In contrast, the Republican Party has eschewed a regulatory approach to the labor market and privileged a "laissez-faire" approach to the employment relationship. In general, the Republican Party has opposed labor organizing and collective bargaining, arguing that they are coercive, and instead emphasized the right of each worker to agree on an individual employment contract with his employer. Similarly, the Republican Party has viewed workplace benefits (including health insurance and retirement plans) through a lens of employer flexibility, individual choice, and a preference for privatization. The Republican Party argues that regulatory requirements to provide workers with health and retirement benefits force US-based firms into an uncompetitive position in a global economy. And Clark, School of Public Policy 2 Georgia Institute of Technology finally, the Republican Party views questions of employment discrimination narrowly and proposes that policies are best adjudicated through private mediation. The labor and employment policies of the 2008 presidential candidates reflected the opposing ideological orientation of their respective parties. The specific policy positions of the candidates were found under a number of functional policy headings rather than as a comprehensive labor policy position. For example, the array of policies which support the participation of women in the labor force (including subsidized child-care, job protections and income support for primary care givers who take family leave, prohibitions against workplace discrimination, and flexible work arrangements) fell under the heading of "Work/Family Balance" in the Obama campaign’s policy materials. In the McCain campaign, the similar issue area, support and protections for women and families in the labor force, fell under the dual headings of "Workplace Flexibility in a Changing Economy" and "Workplace Flexibility and Choice." Neither candidate explicitly categorized these policies as "labor policies." This article describes the labor and employment debates likely to emerge in 2009 and during the Obama administration as well as the positions of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates on policy issues related to labor policy, employment regulation, and economic security for workers stated during the 2008 campaign. There are two major pieces of legislation, the extension of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) and the pending Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which directly address the areas at the heart of national labor policy: 1) terms and conditions or employment and, 2) workplace wages and benefits. In addition, there are several secondary pieces of legislation pending. These acts are primarily constructed as a response to recent anti-labor judicial decisions during the Bush Administration. Secondly, this article outlines policy initiatives beyond the pending legislation which have been significantly affected by the recent global financial crisis: retirement security, pensions, and social security. And finally, this article discusses pending legislation regarding the regulation of workplace discrimination.
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