THE RIGHT TO SAY NO

In the wake of Walker’s Wednesday maneuver, National Review‘s Daniel Foster mourned the extent to which Americans still (or maybe more so now) recognize union rights as democratic rights, or as any kind of right at all:

To hear all the talk of the “rights” — even “civil rights”(!) — that have been stripped from public sector workers in this bill by the “far right wing” is to see Stockholm Syndrome on a massive scale…The fact is that no individual human being lost a single right in Wisconsin tonight.

The right that Scott Walker and company are desperate to deny is this: the right of a worker to sit across the table from her boss as an equal, with the security of solidarity and the leverage of collective action, and say “No.” It’s the right to say safety rules are too weak or healthcare is too expensive and to exercise voice with strength rather than to exit in hopes of finding a charitable boss somewhere else. And with it goes the right – also attacked by Walker – to act together to move your boss.

There are no workers that conservatives believe should exercise these rights -unless, maybe, they’re in a history book. Either the job you do is too important to be subject to your needs (like TSA screeners), or the business you work for is too small (like a store), or your company is too generous already (like Starbucks), or you’re not really a worker (like domestic workers), or your job requires too much independent thinking (like graduate teachers), or your job should be done by a teenager and you should go to college (like fast food), or – like public workers in Wisconsin – you don’t need an organized voice on the job because you get to vote on who runs the government.

Continue reading

HISTORY: NOT OVER YET

I was surprised to see Ross Douthat, in commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, invoke Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, a post-Cold War tract whose star has fallen somewhat since 9/11. Fukuyama argued that whereas the 20th century was marked by intellectual crisis between liberal democracy and its ideological competitors, fascism and communism, once the Soviet Union fell, only liberal democracy was left standing. Now, Fukuyama argued, there is no viable, transnational ideology remaining to compete with liberal democracy, which satisfies a human aspiration for freedom that the Cold War proved to be universal. Thus: the end of history. Liberal democracy is here to stay, and things will not get too much better or worse from here on out. Since his book came out, of course, Fukuyama has gotten slammed by critics on the right convinced that with the Islamist Menace, what we’re actually in is not the End of History a la Fukuyama, but the Clash of Civilizations a la Samuel Huntington.

The stronger critique of Huntington, I’d say, comes from the left. Fukuyama describes, in Douthat’s words,

the disappearance of any enduring, existential threat to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

Like Huntington, Douthat places “liberal democracy” and “free market capitalism” in the same breath. Like two syllables on Sesame Street that inch closer together until they become a single word. On a global scale, the ideological competitor to democracy – to one person, one vote, people’s meaningful exercise of voice over the decisions that impact their lives – is laissez-faire capitalism.

Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God offers a great (and very funny) exploration of how acts of consumerism get rebranded by elites as the new acts of citizenship and the market is christened as democratic. But markets are not democratic. And as Michael Moore reminds us with a confidential CitiGroup memo in his new movie, the people who the markets award the most power know this (as he says, the bottom 99% of the population “have 99% of the votes”).

Who will decide what happens to natural resources or public sector jobs in a third world country? The majority of the people who live there, or international elites with structural adjustment plans and threats of turmoil? Who will decide whether a group workers for a union? The majority of the people who work there, or managers that wield the power to harass and fire them?

Those questions will make history.

DEVOLVE TO ME!

As our friends at The Corner debate whom conservatives should blame for losing the reigns of government, Jim Manzi argues that on social issues like abortion and gay marriage

many people who share the same country disagree in good faith, and are unlikely to be persuaded within our lifetimes. As I have argued at length, I think that the only workable compromise is not to try to force the creation of uniform national law when no national consensus on the morality of these issues exists. Instead, I believe that we should have an agenda of devolving as many of these social issues, as a matter of law, to as local a level as possible.

If we really want to devolve these questions – is abortion permissible? What about same-sex marriage? – to as local a level as possible, how about the individual? I can have my abortion, and my neighbor can opt for adoption (maybe by the gay married couple down the street).

Of course conservatives have all kinds of arguments about why my liberal choices will hurt my neighbor. And liberals have our own arguments about how our economic choices affect each other in a different way than our social choices (making it a good idea to ban $1/ hour labor but not condoms). But it’s just not true that a state is the most local level to which we can devolve decision making on charged issues.

Part of what gets lost amidst right-wing rhetoric about courts reaching down to take away Americans’ freedom is that in taking decisions away from state governments, actors that are bigger than particular states can uphold the autonomy of actors smaller than those states: individual Americans, who shouldn’t reasonably be expected to move from California to Massachusetts to get married because 52% of their neighbors don’t want them to.

WORLD’S SHORTEST POLITICAL QUIZ

Guess where you can read the following political history:

You know, it is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head and it’s been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century.

Is it the pages of Reason Magazine? The declaration of some self-described “classicaly liberal” professor? Nope. Those words were spoken at last night’s Democratic Debate by the party’s frontrunner.

This is what people mean when they complain about the Clintons’ much-vaunted triangulation – although this particular argument is really worse than triangulation, in that rather than positioning herself between two bad boogeymen of the hard left and hard right, she’s just defining her politics against left-wing “big government” (didn’t her husband already declare it over?). And she’s defining “individual freedom” against “big government” too.

It’s not a mystery why she would do this. Conservatives have done an impressive job of convincing people over the past decades that more government means less freedom. That’s how they’ve peddled their attacks on the majority’s ability to legislate against plutocracy. It’s how they’ve pushed forward an agenda that leaves Americans less free – prisoners of fear of disaster, dislocation, and disintegration of their communities and their hopes for their families.

Democrats have not done a great job over the past few decades of framing the debate in a way that elevates freedom from want and freedom from fear and challenges the idea that we are more economically free if your boss can fire you for being gay or fighting for more money. Right-wing frames are powerful. That means contemporary candidates need to either co-opt them or challenge them. Which choice they make is telling.

IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME

Last week, the New York Times reported on the move in China to better protect workers’ rights, and in so doing stem the tide of rising social inequality. And it discussed the instant blowback from American companies:

Hoping to head off some of the rules, representatives of some American companies are waging an intense lobbying campaign to persuade the Chinese government to revise or abandon the proposed law. The skirmish has pitted the American Chamber of Commerce — which represents corporations including Dell, Ford, General Electric, Microsoft and Nike — against labor activists and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Communist Party’s official union organization…One provision in the proposed law reads, “Labor unions or employee representatives have the right, following bargaining conducted on an equal basis, to execute with employers collective contracts on such matters as labor compensation, working hours, rest, leave, work safety and hygiene, insurance, benefits, etc.”

This episode is an object lesson in how corporate-driven globalization works. While orthodox world systems theorists debate when we will shift from an era of American dominance to one of Chinese dominance, and the globalization gurus estimate how long it will take for “open markets” to unleash a new era of liberalism and freedom, corporate-driven globalization is lived by millions as a cudgel wielded not by a national government but by an economic clique, and wielded in the service not of human freedom but of management power.

When workers have the freedom to organize without retaliation and bargain collectively for better futures, they win better working conditions for themselves and their families, and they make it harder to treat them as infinitely flexible and fully disposable resources. That increase in the freedom and democracy of the workplace breeds understandable resistance from people who would otherwise get to call all the shots. Without global standards, global markets ease a global race to the bottom.

This is easy to lose track of in the bipartisan haze of “competition” and the elite faith that if a given nation just does enough to keep its workers cheap and contingent, it can outdo another nation’s efforts at the same. That’s a competition most everybody loses.

"SOUNDS LIKE A BAD THING"

On Good Morning America, they just hosted a consultant advising employees worrying about downsizing to work lots of overtime, make sure not to take any sick days, and subordinate family concerns to whatever their boss wants them to do. Then in response to a question from the host about the stock market, she responded that high unemployment “sounds like a bad thing,” but isn’t so bad: it’s good for the stock market because it means the Fed won’t raise interest rates.

What she didn’t say is that high unemployment makes the stock market go up because the prospect of economic insecurity coerces workers into doing all the things that she’s on air advising them to do.

Intel head Andy Grove alluded to this strategy of management through fear in his book Only the Paranoid Survives, writing “Fear plays a major role in creating and maintaining such passion.” He encourages managers to foster “fear of being wrong and fear of losing” in employees as “powerful motivators.”

Indeed, fear of losing freedom from want will powerfully motivate people to work through illness and past their hours on the clock.

THE WAR ON RELIGIOUS PLURALISM

A few days ago, I watched Bill O’Reilly assure viewers of his TV show that Christians had won the War on Christmas (TM). “Christians have the right to defend their traditions,” he said triumphantly.

It’s easy to laugh at the excesses of the War on Christmas crusaders (Dan chronicled them well here). But it’s a campaign that’s worth paying attention to. It serves as a sobering reminder of how many of the standard-bearers of the right believe themselves to be spokesmen for a righteous majority besieged by hostile religious, sexual, and racial minorities.

Behind the rhetoric about religious freedom, the demand of the War on Christmas crusaders, as articulated by their most earnest advocates, is that both public and private employees greet people of all religions as if they were Christians. They want schools encouraging teachers to say “Merry Christmas” to their students and department stores encouraging check-out clerks to say it to customers. Having them say the “Happy Holidays” instead, which merely acknowledges the possibility of a multiplicity of religious observances, is to be seen as religious persecution of Christians.

Bill O’Reilly showed a Wal-Mart commercial in which “Merry Christmas” appeared on screen, but declared it only to be a step in the right direction from Wal-Mart because it appeared with the hated “Happy Holidays” and neither was mentioned in the voice-over. This is a few weeks after he showed a (year-old) clip of Samantha Bee on the Daily Show joking about separation of church and state and then sneered “Merry Christmas, Jon Stewart.”

So what we’re facing is self-appointed spokespeople for a majority insisting that everyone, be they members of the majority or not, speak as if that majority encompassed everyone in the country.

As for the real desecration of the values of Christ this holiday season, not a creature on the “religious right” is stirring, not even a mouse.

A generation ago, my Dad got kicked out of his first grade classroom for refusing to write a letter to Santa Claus. Unfortunately, that’s still what some people have in mind when they say “family values.”

Happy holidays to all our readers.

PROGRESSIVE POPULISM

Having suggested what I think are some of the very different concepts in play in the dominant discussion of populism, and argued that one that’s ubiquitous in those discussions – prejudice – is out of place, it’s only fair that I take a stab at setting forth what the concept of populism is that’s in play when I call myself a populist and urge the Democrats to take on the mantle and meaning of populism. I won’t bother to argue that the conception of populism I’ll put forth here is somehow more real or historically accurate than the others floating around. What I feel strongest about when it comes to how use the word itself is simply, as I said yesterday, that the conflation of populism and prejudice by economic elites is deeply disingenuous, reflects a deeply entrenched class bias, and underpins a long-term campaign to mark the majority unfit to govern and its criticism of corporate power rank demagoguery.

That said, here are a few of the contentions which I think underpin a progressive populism:

The contention that a healthy economy is one in which the benefits of growth and prosperity should be shared and spread across society.

The contention that a just economy is one in which working people exercise a meaningful voice in the conditions and rewards of their work and in economic policy within and between nations.

The contention that basic human freedoms and opportunities are universal rights, across lines of race, sex, class, and nation, and not provisional privileges.

The contention that the ability of individuals to connect the conditions and challenges of their own lives to those of others, and to their political ideals, has the potential to propel progress.

The contention that policy and democracy both suffer when certain sets of experience are driven out of public discourse.

The contention that for a politician to seek out and fight for more votes is not the moral equivalent of seeking out and fighting for more dollars.

The contention that a willful compact to preserve individual rights by entrusting certain decisions to more insulated institutions is different from and preferable to the unauthorized handover of decisions to enfranchised elites and experts.

The contention that the political victories which last are the ones with popular mandates.

THE COSTCO ALTERNATIVE

In yesterday’s New York Times, Steven Greenhouse profiles Costco, its Chief Executive Jim Sinegal, and the model he’s providing as an alternative to the Wal-Mart economy:

Costco’s average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club. And Costco’s health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish. One analyst, Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank, complained last year that at Costco “it’s better to be an employee or a customer than a shareholder.” Mr. Sinegal begs to differ. He rejects Wall Street’s assumption that to succeed in discount retailing, companies must pay poorly and skimp on benefits, or must ratchet up prices to meet Wall Street’s profit demands. Good wages and benefits are why Costco has extremely low rates of turnover and theft by employees, he said…If shareholders mind Mr. Sinegal’s philosophy, it is not obvious: Costco’s stock price has risen more than 10 percent in the last 12 months, while Wal-Mart’s has slipped 5 percent…

Despite Costco’s impressive record, Mr. Sinegal’s salary is just $350,000, although he also received a $200,000 bonus last year. That puts him at less than 10 percent of many other chief executives, though Costco ranks 29th in revenue among all American companies. “I’ve been very well rewarded,” said Mr. Sinegal, who is worth more than $150 million thanks to his Costco stock holdings. “I just think that if you’re going to try to run an organization that’s very cost-conscious, then you can’t have those disparities. Having an individual who is making 100 or 200 or 300 times more than the average person working on the floor is wrong.”…Costco also has not shut out unions, as some of its rivals have. The Teamsters union, for example, represents 14,000 of Costco’s 113,000 employees. “They gave us the best agreement of any retailer in the country,” said Rome Aloise, the union’s chief negotiator with Costco. The contract guarantees employees at least 25 hours of work a week, he said, and requires that at least half of a store’s workers be full time.

CostCo continues to prove, as I wrote here last year, that the choice Americans face isn’t between policies that are “friendly” or “hostile” to business, or between “big government” and “economic freedom.” Government policies can force a race to the bottom of ever-worsening standards and quality of life for the working Americans who make prosperity possible. Or they can pave the high road by rewarding companies that invest in the economic security of workers and consumers. It’s the latter choice which fosters and expands the real economic freedom which comes from workers’ voice on the job and control over their lives, and whose expansion increases the humanity of our economy.

SPEAKING OF LOCHNER…

Kevin LoVecchio is right to argue over at TPMCafe that the libertarian faith in free contracts willfully ignores to extent to which many of the contracts Americans are coerced into on a daily basis are “not about negotiations, but instead are about tricks and traps.”

The conservatives’ ironclad, reality-be-damned faith in the absolute inviolability of contract has an ugly historical pedigree, going back to Congress’ refusal, on “free contract” grounds, in the wake of the Civil War to punish industrialists who knowingly sold defective weapons to the US Army. It’s philisophical pedigree is fraught as well. Hobbes, for example, insists that “Covenants entered into by fear, in the condition of meer nature, are obligatory” lest collective irrationality in the absence of contract fundamentalism drive societies into the war of all against all whose avoidance Leviathan sets forth as the major task of political philosophy.

Such an argument begs the question of whether human desires can really be inferred from contractual behavior in absence of full information or meaningful alternatives, and of whether human beings have any inalienable rights which they are themselves unable to contract away.

Modern conservatives would do well to remember that even Hobbes is forced later in Leviathan to recognize that there are indeed limits on the individual’s freedom to contract freedoms away. “A Covenant not to defend my selfe from force, by force,” he writes, “is alwayes void.” No human being, Hobbes argues, would knowingly trade away the fundamental right to self-defense, nor should an attempt to do so be recognized as valid. Hobbes thus qualifies his faith in contracts as guardians of collective peace and individual liberty with a nod to inalienable rights. What Hobbes does not or cannot set forth is what should distinguish a promise not to defend oneself from violence from a range of other contractual promises – from mortgaging your home to renouncing union membership – which men and women are coerced into making every day, and which many experience as threats to their bodily integrity or that of their families. None of the free contract fundamentalists, most of them members like Hobbes of a class with little reason to fear for their economic security, has come up with a convincing answer since then either.

Kingspawn faults my letter for conflating opposition to Roe and opposition to the right to choose. But that distinction is exactly why I wrote

As reported nine years ago in The New Republic, whose editors oppose the Roe v. Wade decision, Casey Sr. was not offered a chance to speak at the convention nominating Bill Clinton because he had refused to endorse Bill Clinton

and not “As reported nine years ago in the anti-choice New Republic.” The point of that clause, though I’ll grant it could have been stated more clearly or simply dropped, was that TNR is on the right of most Democratic voters on the issue of choice, and revels in decrying the Democratic party’s supposed deafness and meanness to voters (read: TNR writers) to its right on issues where TNR is to the right of the party (read: everything but equal marriage). So a repudiation of a story about the Democratic party keeping down Democrats in the right wing of the party means more when it’s written by a magazine that lives for righteous denunciations of the Democrats for keeping down the right wing of the party.

As for Roe v. Wade, it’s certainly not the best argued or compellingly written of our legal decisions, but the majority is right to recognize that autonomy in certain intimate situations and spaces is central to liberty. The equal protection argument (as my brother points out, we don’t mandate that men donate, say, their kidneys, a procedure far less cumbersome than nine months of pregnancy, to save what we can all agree to be living human beings in need of organs) absolutely should have been made in Roe as well, and the Casey majority’s time would have been much better spent expounding that than floating a stare decisis argument that privileges the legitimacy of the court over the rightness of its jurisprudence.

“Restoring the American Dream: Building a 21st Century Labor Movement that Can Win,” the platform released by UNITE HERE, SEIU, the Laborers, and the Teamsters on Monday, is on-line here. Its Agenda for Worker Strength has five points, the first of which, “Uniting Workers for Economic Strength,” articulates the structural proposals which have been at the center of the controversy over the future of the AFL-CIO. It calls for the federation to:

Use incentives to focus unions on uniting workers in core industries.More of the national labor movement’s resources must be directly devoted to the task of bringing millions of new workers into the labor movement. The AFL-CIO budget must be used to create incentives for unions to increase their organizing and focus on uniting workers in their core industries in order to maintain and build bargaining power. We believe that half of what unions now pay to the AFL-CIO should be rebated to unions that have a strategic plan and commitment to organizing in their core industries based on the formula outlined in the Teamster proposal.

Actively support mergers that unite workers by industry. Many AFL-CIO affiliates do not have the resources or strength or effectively take on large employers that are driving standards in their industries or to help workers organize on a large enough scale in their industries…The AFL-CIO should play an active and direct role in working with affiliated unions to facilitate mergers – subject to approval by the affected members – that lead to increased power for workers in the same or complimentary industries…

As this platform recognizes, the responsibility of a single national labor federation, if we are to have one in this country, is to grow the labor movement by protecting the right to organize and providing resources and facilitating coordination for organizing. In an era of declining union density and increasing corporate consolidation, coordination within industries is crucial to turning the tide, and mergers – when they are strategically savvy and democratically supported – are a powerful tool for building power and solidarity. And most of all, as John Sweeney himself has repeated over the past decade, the straits in which working Americans find themselves today make it imperative to organize or die. The unions bringing forward this proposal are right to recognize that spurring organizing requires more than rhetorical leadership from the AFL-CIO. The reason they represent a significant fraction of the membership of the federation is that they have prioritized an aggressive organizing program over the past decade, and in so doing have realized the right to collective bargaining for millions out of the more than half of American workers who say in polls that they want union representation at a time when only one in twelve in the private sector has it. Because union membership is a source of greater strength when greater numbers of workers are in unions, it is not only justifiable but crucial for a federation funded and supported by fifty-some internationals to use its resources to push each of those unions to grow. Remitting a portion of those dues to those unions committed to spending money to directly grow the density of the movement is directly in the service of the broader movement. If the AFL-CIO is kept from aggressively push greater organizing and coordinated action, it risks being reduced over time to little more than an occasional media and turnout apparatus of decreasing usefulness. The document continues:

Strategically leverage labor’s existing bases of industry strength…It means identifying lead and dominant unions by sector, industry, employer, market, and where appropriate, craft, along with the responsibilities that go with it. It means that industry or area bargaining standards need to be made central to the inter-union dispute process and central to labor’s efforts to focus resources…rules must be updated and revised to reflect the pressing need for organized labor to deter the “race to the bottom” caused by employers seeking to use one affiliate as a means of protection from another, and to encourage unions to devote precious resources to building power in core industries and coordinate bargaining. Where multiple unions have members in the same industry, industry in a market, or employer, the AFL-CIO will facilitate coordinated bargaining. Affiliates undercutting standards should suffer penalties.

I’m not sure yet what to make of the assignment of dominant unions in each sector, but the need for clear and unyielding standards in bargaining is inarguable. As long as weaker unions cut deals with employers to keep out stronger unions, the labor movement is shooting itself in the back and it is those workers who most need effective representation who suffer. Critics of the New Unity Partnership are right to remind us that the absolute right of a worker to join a union of her choosing is not to be compromised. No one wants to see workers shoehorned into pre-selected unions based on negotiations in which they have no part. But the fundamental economic freedom of union representation is not served when weak unions take on the role of the company unions of the pre-Wagner era and push out internationals which threaten an employer because they have the power to win real gains. The only way I can see to empower workers to organize and to win is through the formation and standards and the facilitation of negotiation, and the reformers are right to identify a role for the AFL-CIO, as a voluntary union federation, to play here in maximizing the effectiveness of its member unions in growing and serving the ranks of its member workers. Too often, this issue is discussed as a matter of big unions versus small unions. But the assumptions that small unions are always more democratic and that that big unions are always more effective are both misguided, and neither is borne out by history. Much more salient is the division between those unions which prioritize organizing and industrial democracy and those which do not. Somewhat less controversial is the next proposal:

Make the AFL-CIO the strategic center for a permanent campaign to take on powerful anti-worker employers and help workers unite their strength in new growth sectors.…Well-funded, movement-wide campaigns are required to make low-road employer respect their workers’ freedom to form unions…We support the creation of a dedicated fund of $25 million out of the current AFL-CIO to finance large, multi-union movement-wide campaigns directed at reversing the Wal-Marting of our jobs and out communities by large low-road employers.

Fortunately, after years of unsuccessful and largely unnoticed and uninspiring organizing attempts by the UFCW at Wal-Mart, there’s a growing awareness that the viral expansion of Wal-Mart and its noxious business model will mean diminishing returns for the entire movement until we take it on head-on, and that organizing Wal-Mart represents a momentous challenge which cannot be overcome by a single union alone. As John Wilhelm wrote to John Sweeney last year, however the November election went there would have been no greater priority for the American labor movement in its wake than winning a robust right to organize for millions of Wal-Mart workers. As we saw in the supermarket strikes in LA, as long as Wal-Mart pushes forward a race to the bottom at an unprecedented rate, all working people lose. And it will take the commitment of the whole federation to reverse that trend.

Make growth and worker power our political focus…To empower workers politically we must have a growth agenda to build larger, stronger and more effective workplace organizations. Increased political spending without a program for growth will not lead to either increased power for workers in the workplace or in politics…Our program must be workplace-centered, worker-oriented, and independent of any party or candidate. Our purpose is to be the voice of workers in the political process, not the voice of politicians or parties to the workers…The AFL-CIO’s political program at the local, state, and national levels should have as its highest priority encouraging public officials to actively support workers who are trying to form unions, as well as to support the maintenance and growth of union jobs…those politicians of either party who support the union-busting agenda of the Right to Work Committee, the Associated Builders and Contractors, or any other similar organization should face rebuke from all unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO regardless of their stand on other issues. The AFL-CIO needs to develop a strategic growth and political plan focused on critical swing states that will make the difference in changing the direction of our nation, and to which state and local bodies and affiliates are held accountable…an increase in union density in the State of Ohio, for example, from 16% to 26% would have put John Kerry in the White House.

This document is absolutely right to recognize the failures of the AFL-CIO in holding accountable Democrats who cast anti-labor votes, in forcing the right to organize onto the national political agenda, and in using the political system to protect and further workers’ rights. I think the problem has much more to do with the federation’s treatment of anti-labor Democrats than of pro-labor Republicans – in fact I’d say too often labor has bent over backwards to bestow the pro-labor Republican label for the appearance of a bipartisan pro-labor consensus of the kind we have yet to create. And the reformers are right that a resurgence in labor’s political clout cannot come without a resurgence of union organizing. Here labor and the Democrats should have a shared interest in creating more union members, given that union membership is the only thing that makes white men with guns who go to church vote Democratic; would that the Democrats put as much effort into trying to multiply the ranks of union members as the Republicans are into trying to create more investors. Putting the right to organize front and center would help Democrats doubly by creating more union members and by giving them more reason to vote Democratic; this platform attests to the ways the AFL-CIO has to go in pushing for politicians to do so. The legal right to organize cannot itself be labor’s entire political agenda however; while this paragraph almost reads as if it is, the platform later devotes entire sections to coalition-building around healthcare and global trade. The line later on refering to “social issues” as outside of the purview of labor is as unsettling as it is intentionally ambiguous. It certainly doesn’t represent the approach that’s yielded success for SEIU and UNITE HERE over the past decade. A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and freedom from discrimination for women, workers of color, and queer workers, are fundamental issues of workers’ rights, and any labor federation which shies away from them does so to its own detriment and that of this country’s most marginalized workers. A recognition of the urgency of broadening the movement is more clear in the sections on diversity within the AFL-CIO and international solidarity.

New Standards of Accountability and Governance…If labor as a whole is to grow the AFL-CIO must be the movement’s strategic growth center…democratic change requires the creation of a streamlined Executive Committee comprised of the largest unions that represent most AFL-CIO members and are responsible for uniting workers in the major sectors of the economy, with several additional rotating seats to ensure diversity…Financial and organizational accountability and openness must be the operating principal of a new AFL-CIO. Ongoing senior level staff meetings between unions on issues of AFL-CIO policy must take place between meetings of principals…The AFL-CIO must establish and enforce standards in such areas as bargaining, strategic industry plans and results; political fundraising and participation by members and their families, workplace organization, among others.

I’m not sure what structural arrangement best serves the ends of openness and representativeness within the AFL-CIO. But inter-union dialogue is certainly a must, as is transparency in decision-making and accountability in producing results. This accountability must apply both to the federation’s leadership and to its member unions. The AFL-CIO is, after all, a voluntary compact, and affiliation should signify a commitment to organizing and building the movement.

These proposals, all the more so when taken together with the other four points of the platform (focused on representation, strategic use of union money and purchasing power, global solidarity, and healthcare and retirement security), represent a blue-print with at least the potential to bring real change to a federation in deep need of it. I support its broad vision, including the final point of that first section:

Leadership Committed to Building a Movement that Can Win. The AFL-CIO needs leadership that is committed to the kind of fundamental restructuring of the federation that we are proposing.