“It’s still about the economy, stupid!” – and about health care, education, racial justice, Social Security, tax fairness and all the other issues that confronted us four years ago. This year’s crucial national election and the movements that will put people into office this November will set the framework for how these key issues are dealt with in the period ahead.
In November voters will be electing a president, a vice-president, the full House of Representatives and one third of the Senate. In New York State we will also be electing members of the State Senate and Assembly. There is no more important year in the four-year election cycle and once again unions and their members will play a crucial role in the outcome.
Union members make up about 18 percent of the electorate. However, in the last two national elections, voters from union families made up between 25 and 30 percent of all voters. These figures were higher in New York State. Clearly the size and organization of the union vote will make a huge difference.
Labor’s most important goal in this election is to provide information about the key issues and policy differences of the various candidates to their members, and then encourage them to turn out to vote. Based on some fairly clear differences, especially among Congressional candidates, the expectation is that two thirds of labor’s votes will go to Democratic candidates, as has been the case in past elections.
If this is the case, there is a good chance that Al Gore can be elected President and an equally strong possibility of ending Republican control of the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate. Each of these arenas is crucial to making advances toward economic justice, affordable, quality health care, education and the many other issues important to working families.
The Gingrich-led Republicans who took over control of the House of Representatives in 1994 now hold it by a slim 10-vote margin. A shift of just five seats from Republican to Democrat would make Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) Speaker of the House, and New York Congressman Charles Rangel chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel has been a good friend and supporter of Local 802 and labor in general. As chair of the Ways and Means committee he would be in a position to help determine funding for agencies and programs like the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Democrats are also within striking distance in the Senate, needing six seats to take control. A Democratic majority here could break the legislative logjam on health care issues, as well as helping to ensure that the Supreme Court doesn’t lean any further to the right.
Local 802 members are greatly affected by many of the issues the next Congress will deal with.
Perhaps the most important is health care. Musicians are overly represented among the 44 million Americans who have no health insurance coverage. After five or six years of fairly moderate increases, the costs of health care, health insurance and prescription drugs are once again rising at double-digit rates, and the number of uninsured is growing. Whoever is elected president will have to deal with this national crisis, along with the new Congress. The immediate focus of the health care battle is Medicare, and efforts to add a prescription drug benefit to it.
Education remains another vitally important issue for Local 802 members, many of whom are parents of children who attend the public schools. A particularly important issue for members is restoring arts education in our public schools. While some small steps have been taken, there remains much for a new president and a new Congress to accomplish.
Although economic improvements for working Americans over the last eight years have been important, the fact that real wages still lag behind where they were in the 1970s is often overlooked. According to the Economic Policy Institute in a new edition of “The State of Working America,” the median wage for workers aged 25 to 34 was 13 percent less in 1998 than it was in 1973. For those between 35 and 44 it was 9 percent less, and for those from 45 to 54 wages stagnated.
In general workers are putting in longer hours for less money. Despite a strong economy, single-earner families and the poor are not doing well. And workers in the middle of the economic ladder are under enormous pressure from the rising costs of housing, health care and education.
The vote in New York and New Jersey is important to making progress on all of these issues; there are key House and Senate races in both states. The next issue of Allegro will review some specific races, and outline the positions of the various candidates on key issues.
In the meantime, what is most important is to make sure that you and every member of your family who is eligible is registered to vote in the general election. The deadline is Oct. 7. If you have any questions about how to register, call Local 802’s Public Relations Department or your local Board of Elections.