In the spirit of the holiday, three pieces of good recent labor news with good long-term implications as well:

The same week Wal-Mart announced its lowest profits in years, the launch of Robert Greenwald’s film “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” with thousands of showings nationwide was a huge success, as was WalmartWatch’s coordinated “Higher Expectations Week.” Last week showed definitively that just as battling the Wal-Marting of our economy has become a top priority of the labor movement, it’s moved into a position of prominence on the national radar as well. This issue is finally coming to be understood for what it is: the frontline in the struggle over whether democratic majorities or corporate ultimatums will shape our economy. And its potential to bring together feminists, environmentalists, unionists, trade activists, anti-sprawl activists, and immigrant rights activists is finally being realized in a way it hasn’t before. The foundations for a truly effective targeted international campaign are finally being laid. Also, my Mom is telling everyone she knows to shop at CostCo instead of Wal-Mart.

The AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition announced a tentative compromise on the issue of non-AFL-CIO local participation in country and state labor federations. This was the first serious test of the ability of an American labor movement split for the first time in half a century between two competing federations to lay the groundwork to work together on common challenges at the local level. A compromise here – like the SEIU/ AFSCME anti-raiding agreement – bodes well for a future in which each federation pursues different national organizing strategies while pushing their locals to work together to push for progressive change and hold the line against anti-labor candidates, initiatives, and employers.

And Histadrut Head Amir Peretz unseated Shimon Peres as Head of Israel’s Labor Party. Much of the analysis in the wake of that election has understandably focused on its role in prompting Peres and Ariel Sharon to bolt from Labor and Likud, respectively, to form a “centrist” party of their own (it’ll be interesting to see what this means for Labor’s relationship the left-of-left-of-center Meretz Yachad party, itself the result of a recent merger). But Peretz’s ascension is historic in its own right, as it represents the reclamation of the Labor Party by Israel’s foremost Israeli labor leader. Peretz won by doing what few Israeli politicians have done much of recently: talking about issues beyond hamatzav (the situation, i.e., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). That includes mounting unemployment, extreme poverty, and severe economic inequality largely mapped along lines of race and immigration status. These issues have only worsened from neglect, and Peretz’s ascension to head of Labor offers a real chance to put them back on the national agenda – and offers Labor a chance to pull impoverished voters away from more conservative parties, like Shas.

Happy Thanksgiving.


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.

Dean has locked down the SEIU and AFSCME endorsements. As I noted before, I have my reservations about parts of Dean’s policy record, but out of the current crop of candidates he’s distinguished by full and unapologetic rejection of each of the major outrages of the Bush administration, his willingness, deftness, and passion in articulating an alternative vision for this country, and his capacity to organize effectively around it. And as Nathan Newman notes:

I’m left a bit stunned at what could be a consolidation quite early of Dean’s innovative online organizing with the powerhouse on-the-ground operations of SEIU and AFSCME (along with the other unions that will soon fall into place). Janitors and computer jockies organizing together is an amazingly powerful idea.

And we ain’t seen nothing yet. We are a year from Election Day, yet Dean is starting with an online organization of over 500,000 people, while the SEIU, for example, has already held multiple national meetings of thousands of their top activist organizers to be sent back into the field to mount the largest political mobilization in history. Thousands of SEIU members will be taking a one-year leave of absence to go organize in swing states on the payroll of the union’s political operations– a cross-state organizing effort that’s never been done and being started orders of magnitude earlier than any previous political year…

Breaking news from Business Week:

Howard Dean’s Presidential ambitions are poised to get a major lift on Nov. 6 when the AFL-CIO’s largest union, the 1.3 million member Service Employees International Union, is set to endorse him, BusinessWeek has learned. The SEIU’s action, coming shortly after Dean won pledges from two small unions, the International Union of Painters and the California Teachers Assn., goes a long way toward completing the transformation of the former Vermont governor from a niche candidate backed by limousine liberals, antiwar activists, and tech-savvy young people into a mainstream candidate who can also connect with blue-collar America. Says SEIU President Andy Stern: “It’s clear that Dean has gained the most support amongst our members and local leaders.”

For all my reservations about Dean, I do see truth in Jacob’s argument that

if anyone is going to win against Bush, that candidate needs to unite the foreign policy left wing of the party with the economic policy left wing of the party, and combine all that with a strategy that gets people riled up, donating money, and voting. I’d happly back anyone I thought could do that, from John Edwards to Al Sharpton. Kucinich tries to to the part where he unites the two important parts of the party, but fails at actually running a campaign. Gephardt was thought to have the unions but his wishy-washy politics on the war, combined with his proven record of failure (most recently in 2002) make him a poor candidate. Dean is the man to unite around, and now it seems that the biggest unions in the country agree

As I’ve probably said here before, Dean is the candidate who has had the most success so far in building a left “Contract with America” – mounting a (generally) coherent, passionate, and resonant critique of the current administration and articulating a vision of a more (if insufficiently) progressive alternative – and he knows better than many of the other eight how to organize around it. Shame that he has a record of prioritizing balanced budgets over social services.

One place where I agree with Jacob wholeheartedly:

…it’s nice to see SEIU, AFSCME, and CWA working together on something. If only SEIU can get AFSCME and CWA on board with the New Unity Partnership…