Gearing Up for a Crucial Year in Politics

Guest Commentary

Volume C, No. 4April, 2000

For the past several months, Americans have been inundated with stories about the 2000 elections. With so many talking heads making so much noise, the natural reaction has been to tune them out. But this year’s elections have a rhythm all their own. By the time you read this column, the nominating process may be over. And then the fun really begins.

Simply put, American workers – especially those who belong to unions – don’t have the luxury of remaining aloof from the political process. Trade union activists defeated “fast track” trade legislation and Proposition 226 because we came to the polls in disproportionate numbers. The minute that we begin to take the status quo for granted is the minute that we are in the most danger of having our rights taken away.

Yes, trade union activists defeated paycheck protection and the Team Act. Yes, we successfully halted attempts to gut the Jones Act, Davis-Bacon and OSHA. But in some instances the margin of victory was very small – a handful of votes in the Senate or the House. If labor is to sustain the progress that it has made over the past four years, it can’t let down its guard.

Getting involved in this year’s elections serves three important purposes. For one thing, it gives trade unionists the chance to educate members of Congress and the public about our issues. It also puts everyone on notice that we are to be taken seriously: love us or hate us, the days of ignoring the trade union movement or using it as a punching bag are over. And by electing more pro-worker candidates, we can maintain our rights and programs and even begin expanding upon them.

In today’s global marketplace, where hundred-billion-dollar corporate mergers and takeovers are so commonplace that they barely elicit a yawn, there is only one organized segment of the population fighting for working American families: the trade union movement. Without us, there would be no one to speak out against the lack of enforceable labor standards in places like China or Pakistan. By now, Medicare benefits would have been slashed and Social Security privatized. In dozens of cities across the nation, there would have been no “living wage.” In fact, without the concerted effort of union members talking with and writing to their legislators, the minimum wage would be even lower.

We know that when we take the time and effort to communicate with our members, it makes a difference. Addressing the Maritime Trades Department’s 1999 biennial convention, AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal revealed some interesting statistics. Union members who had been contacted in their workplace by their unions, either directly or through leaflets or newsletters, were far more likely to vote than those who had not been contacted. Unlike their nonunion counterparts, these men and women came to realize that there’s nothing to be gained by sitting around and complaining about the political process. If you want to change it, if you want to make life better for your community and family, you have to be involved.

Today’s popular culture says that it’s cool to be cynical. Seinfeld may be great TV, but as an approach to life it just doesn’t ring true. In the end, the tried-and-true platitudes always win out. Solidarity. One Step at a Time. You Reap What You Sow. And oh, yes. Your Vote Counts. That’s an important one, and don’t let anyone say otherwise.

This column originally appeared in Maritime, a publication of the AFL-CIO’s Maritime Trades Department.