The Oregonian

Re-imagining 21st Century Labor Unions

Labor unions have seen their membership and political influence wane as corporate influences have swelled, leading to provocative ideas for a new type of union that represents the political interests of a community of workers.Labor Day was celebrated by the usual picnics and political speeches. But it also drew two intriguing op-eds that pointed to a broader and different role for labor unions in the quest to retain a working middle class in America. 

Both opinion pieces called for labor organizations that extend beyond bargaining for wages and benefits. They urged community-based organizations that would serve as the political voice for low- and middle-class workers as a counterbalance to well-heeled corporate influences in politics and governance.

"The union movement is not going to rebuild the middle class in the 21st century with a system of labor laws that were designed for factory worker in the 1930s and copied for government workers in the 1970s," wrote Tim Nesbitt, a former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO and senior advisers to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber.

In his op-ed appearing in The Oregon, Nesbitt said, "Today's realities require looking beyond the traditional bargaining units composed of jobs of a single employer at one or more work sites, which are no longer effective for advancing the interests of large numbers of workers in the job churn of the private sector."

Road Congestion and Political Gridlock

The cost of congestion continues to rise, but not enough apparently to break political gridlock on how to modernize, expand and diversify the nation's aging transportation system.A new report says bumper-to-bumper congestion on American roads and highways cost the economy $121 billion in 2011 in lost hours of work and wasted fuel. The cost of congestion is predicted to rise to almost $200 billion by 2020.

The report says Portland has the sixth worst commutes in the country, resulting from a relatively small, circular freeway system that bunches up traffic, especially when there are multiple accidents or bad weather conditions. Portlanders drive fewer miles, one of the report authors says, but travel times can be unreliable and often stressful.

Meanwhile, political gridlock in the nation's capital and many state legislatures is blocking measures to invest in roads and bridges. Roll Call's John Boyd reports President Obama backed off his call for new money for transportation in negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff. Senators from both political parties, Boyd adds, flirted with a transportation funding package in the lame duck session last year, but gave up.

While motorists dislike congestion, they appear to hate proposals to raise the gas tax, switch to a mileage-based fee, resort to toll-ways or pay in some manner for road use if they drive an alternative fuel vehicle. An sudden, sharp jump in gas prices in the last two weeks hasn't made motorists less grumpy.

Appreciating Bill Keller

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller steps down to pursue a writing career. Photo by John Niedermeyer.It doesn't seem that long ago when Bill Keller, then a Capitol Hill reporter for The Oregonian, sat across from my desk in the Cannon Office Building and told me I didn't know as much as I thought I did. Keller meant his comment to apply to a particular topic, but I took it as a general observation. As time has advanced, I have reflected often on his comment and agree with him more every day.

So it was an interesting personal moment last week when I heard Keller announce he will step down as executive editor of The New York Times after eight years in the post. Bill characteristically took the occasion of his pending departure to unload about his soon-to-be former job. He described constant crisis management, from low morale on the news staff that he inherited to the atrophy of newspaper bottom lines. Somewhere in there, Keller was involved in parsing and publishing sensitive government documents obtained by WikiLeaks.