Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009
Ted Kennedy was a champion for workers for all his political career. I first shook his hand when I was only seven. He was behind his war hero brother who was running for president.
I still have the “Kennedy for President” poster signed by both of them. I remember that I thought he didn’t look much older than the teens I knew.
I was in Cape Cod on vacation when he passed away. The emotions among people all over Massachusetts were palpable, the respect monumental. The man on the radio said, “Kennedy is downtown; don’t try to drive.”
Earlier this year, Ted Kennedy had introduced the Employee Free Choice Act in the Senate.
The bill would enable a resurgence in union organizing by halting the abuse of employees during organizing drives.
The Free Choice Act was drafted 10 years ago, spent eight years bottled up in committees, and passed the House of Representatives in 2007.
It was held up in the Senate by corporate allies there and President Bush said he would veto the bill.
It can pass the House again this year, but the Senate is again a stumbling block.
Corporations have declared the goal of raising a billion dollars to defeat this bill, while at the same time some of them accept billions of our tax dollars to keep them afloat.
Under the act, workers can begin bargaining a contract after signing union cards instead of going through an NLRB election.That’s been the method in New York State for small businesses for nearly a decade.
The act provides meaningful penalties for employer unfair labor practices and arbitration of first contracts if after a year the negotiators cannot reach an agreement.
Why do politics?
Our support of the Free Choice Act and other legislation makes some union members question whether the union should be politically active at all.
From my perspective, the job of the union is more than negotiating contracts.
The function and purpose of every union is to act in the interests of its members.
Put another way, the purpose of the union is to secure respect.
- Respect for your time in the form of good wages and paid time off as well as for the provision of income during periods of sickness and unemployment.
- Respect for your bodies in the form of safe working conditions, adequate rest and good health care for the entire family.
- Respect for the protection from dire poverty in old age in the form of pensions.
- Respect for the spirit of the community in the form of good education and religious tolerance.
- Respect for our families’ needs to live free from fear and prejudice in decent homes.
So why are we politically active?
It’s in our interest.
When unions are able to win support from both people in the street and politicians in public office, the result is a better contract.
Employers are aware of a union’s allies when they go into bargaining.
Having allies helps make gains and protect what you have.
The payback is also two ways.
When society supports unions, union workers win better contracts.
But as union workers win better contracts, everyone’s standards go up.
There is a term used in labor studies called the “social wage.” That is the benefit offered to everyone as a result of the activism of the labor movement.
In part, the social wage today includes OSHA, the eight-hour day and its enforcement, the minimum wage, the insurance of private pension plans, and the right to refuse work that poses an immediate health hazard.
Unions were also a huge influence in getting Medicare and Social Security established.
And much of the labor movement actively sought and contributed to the changes in civil rights laws.
All of these items, in large part, were enacted due to labor activism.
Unions that are isolationist – ones whose efforts end at the edge of the bargaining table – always encounter situations where they scramble for support when confrontations occur.
And inevitably confrontations will occur.
Last-minute support is always too little too late.
My 30 years of negotiating over 150 contracts have taught me to respect preparation through activism as the best way to secure positive results even in difficult economic circumstances.
Employers respect power.
My function is to build the power of the union to get results.
Politics is one way we do that.
With the death of Ted Kennedy, we’ve lost an ally.
We’ve also lost an accountant for the social wage.
Now we should demonstrate that some of the class and optimism he embodied has rubbed off on us.