This issue of In These Times includes compelling pieces by Andy Stern and Gerald McEntee, Presidents of the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the two largest unions in the AFL-CIO. SEIU and AFSCME, the leading private and public sector unions respectively in the US, surprised many pundits who view them as rivals when they together endorsed Howard Dean a few months back. Stern argues rightly that the Democratic party cannot survive without the labor movement:

At our best, unions are one of the few institutions with progressive values that have millions of members, multimillion dollar budgets and the ability to do grassroots organizing on a large enough scale to counter the power of today’s corporations.

The 2000 presidential election clearly showed the difference unions can make.

* Bush won in nonunion households by 8 points, but lost in union households by 37 points.
* He won nonunion white men by 41 points, but lost union white men by 24 points.
* He won nonunion gun owners by 39 points, but lost union gun owners by 21 points.
* He did 16 points better among nonunion people of color than among union people of color.

So if more workers in Florida, Missouri, Ohio and other states that went narrowly for Bush had been union members, the past three years in this country would have been very different.

He offers three priorities for organized labor: legal defense of the right to organize as a human right, alliance across movements and communities in fighting for just causes, and prioritizing organizing. The latter two are arguably what accounted for the historic success of the CIO before and during the New Deal period, and are central to the New Unity Partnership Stern is spearheading with the Presidents of HERE, UNITE, the Laborers, and the Carpenters. The decline in the first, from the Taft-Hartley Act (which only Dennis Kucinich among the Democratic candidates has promised to repeal) to Reagan’s crackdown on the Air Traffic Controllers, is at the centerpiece of the counter-revolution against the labor movement over the past decades. And Bush, as McEntee argues, has pushed that counter-revolution further:

Indeed, at no other time during my 44 years in labor have I seen members of my union-the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)-nor the House of Labor, more dedicated to getting one person out of office.

And we all know why. Three million jobs lost in three years-the most since the Great Depression: 66 million Americans with inadequate healthcare coverage or no healthcare coverage at all; a median household income that has fallen for three straight years; 3 million Americans who slipped into poverty in 2001; ergonomic rules scrapped; overtime regulations attacked. The list goes on and on…the Bush administration invoked the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act-an action that hadn’t been taken in 25 years and never in a lockout. President Bush’s shameful use of Taft-Hartley sent a message to other employers: When the going gets rough at the bargaining table, the federal government can always step in-to help the boss.

But McEntee’s central argument, which Stern alludes to as well, is that getting a Democratic President into office is not and never has been enough to protect the rights of working people. Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed a National Labor Relations Act to bring labor into his coalition and into the Democratic establishment becuase it was clear that otherwise the labor movement could have torn his Presidency apart. Real economic change in this country won’t be accomplished by a Clintonite who sees organized labor as a special interest equivalent to big business to be kept at bay with moderate reforms and kept out of corrupting the political process. As McEntee argues:

It is clear that we must defeat George W. Bush. But we must also grow our unions. And whomever the Democratic Party selects as its nominee-AFSCME hopes it is Howard Dean-we must insist that he support a comprehensive social justice agenda, job creation, quality and affordable healthcare for all, the preservation of Medicare and Social Security, civil rights and much more.

And the House of Labor must insist that the next president support an aggressive agenda for worker rights, including real penalties for violators of labor laws, creating a law that will make employers recognize their workers’ desire to form a union, establishing first contract arbitration and giving the National Labor Relations Board the power to enforce laws that
protect workers.

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