The Choice is Clear

Organizing Matters

Volume CVIII, No. 10October, 2008

Joel LeFevre
Click for larger image.
Photo by Lee Sandberg.
The choice before union members and their families this November is a clear one. The Democratic nominees for president and vice president are both co-sponsors of the Employee Free Choice Act, which is vital for labor organizing. The Republican candidate voted against the act just last year.

All of us have an incredibly important choice in November because all of us are connected to union workers in some way. Even if you don’t work in a unionized job, you might have family members who are union workers. You may be a neighbor to a union worker. Your kids may go to school with sons and daughters of union workers. Basically, you may live in a union neighborhood without even knowing it. And when unionization rates fall, it creates a cascade that affects the whole neighborhood, the whole city, the whole country and the whole economy. 

It’s not that farfetched. Unionization is the factor that drove income distribution wide enough to create the American middle class. Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter and Clinton have all acknowledged this central principle in the creation of the American consumer economy.

But favoring the unionization rights of workers has become the equivalent of political poison to the modern neoconservatives, with whose government for the rich John McCain has voted 90 percent of the time in the last eight years.

John Kenneth Galbraith had a concept about tax cuts for the wealthy that I remember well. The economist said that “Giving tax cuts to the wealthy is what some call ‘birdfeed economics.’ The theory being that if you feed the horse enough oats, enough will pass through the other end for the birds to survive.” 

McCain’s central economic platform plank is to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. “Drill, drill, drill” is his prescription for energy.

Obama’s central economic platform is to repeal tax cuts for the rich and give a tax break to the rest of us — and still guarantee school funding.

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Photo by Molly Theobald.

The Democratic candidates also want massive investment in energy technology (or “E.T.”), which will end our oil addiction and create upwards of five million jobs. Remember the dot com boom? That was all about “I.T.” — information technology. Well, as expressed by Frank Rich in the New York Times, “E.T.” is the new “I.T.”!

In previous columns I have noted the high quality of life in communities with larger rates of unionization, compared to communities where unions are weak. People who live in union communities tend to make more money, of course. But on average they also suffer fewer fatalities at work, survive more heart attacks, are more likely to be covered by health insurance, experience better neo-natal care, and do better in school.

The unionization rate in the U.S. has plummeted in the last 30 years. The key to rebuilding the labor movement is changing the laws that govern organizing. That means making the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land.

From Barack Obama’s 2008 Labor Day message on the AFL-CIO Web site: 

“It’s time you had a president who honors organized labor — who’s walked on picket lines; who doesn’t choke on the word ‘union’; who lets our unions do what they do best and organize our workers; and who will finally make the Employee Free Choice Act the law of the land.”

Near the end of Senator Obama’s nomination acceptance speech on Aug. 28 (which took place on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech), Obama evoked the American spirit of possibility, the willingness to strive for better. He said:

“You know, this country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities and our culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

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Photo by Steve Rhodes.

“Instead, it is that American spirit, that American promise, that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.

“That promise is our greatest inheritance. It’s a promise I make to my children when I tuck them in at night and a promise that you make to yours, a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west, a promise that led workers to picket lines and women and minorities to reach for the ballot.”

Consider that for a moment. In the biggest TV audience Obama may ever get, he chooses to evoke the spirit of pioneers, immigrants, activists for women’s rights and unionists fighting for respect.

Many politicians have hailed the pioneer spirit. But adding striking workers to the imagery is a first for a national stage. We need a president who understands that protecting the freedom to organize is essential to protecting freedom.

Anticipating a Democratic Congress, anti-union billionaires have formed a $100 million fund to deploy advertising in opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act. It will run ads that depict mobsters accompanying average people into voting booths, asking them “You know what to do, right?” The ad falsely claims that the EFCA would eliminate the secret ballot vote and give union activists the right to intimidate workers. Just about as phony as the claim that John McCain’s economic plans are different from those of George W. Bush.