It’s sometimes an open debate in our union whether we should or should not be involved in politics.
Especially when it comes to endorsing candidates, many members throw up their hands when we publicly support someone on the “wrong” side of the political spectrum — whether left or right.
The typical comment is as follows: “Let the union take care of business. The members should make up their own minds about voting.”
This may sound good in theory, but reality demonstrates that this is not a practical or effective way to increase the ability of our union to improve the lives of its members.
We ignore politics and politicians at our peril and the battle over healthcare is a good example of the dangers in ignoring political realities.
Health insurance was once one of the expected perks of a good job, particularly a union job.
When this began to change in the nonunion sector, unions were slow to react.
After all, for some time they had the clout to keep health benefits and pension as part of any economic package.
Pushing for universal healthcare raised the specter of “socialized medicine,” including the unattractive possibility — always asserted by opponents — that citizens would not be able to choose their own physician.
As a result, the general attitude of unions was to avoid rocking the boat for people who weren’t members.
In retrospect, this was shortsighted.
The wholesale assault which has taken place against fringe benefits for employees has inevitably caught union members in the same bind as their nonunion brothers and sisters.
As we have witnessed in our own negotiations, anything that has been imposed on nonunion employees will ultimately be brought to the bargaining table by our employers.
We are better off than the thousands of at-will employees in the country who have no benefits — or benefits that can be changed at the stroke of an employer’s pen.
But it is unpleasant when we are forced to accept wage compromises just to hold onto benefits we once took for granted.
How much better off would we be if the AFL-CIO and its affiliates had fought for universal healthcare legislation in the 1950’s, before competitive economic pressures made healthcare on the job the exception rather than the rule.
This is only one example of the issues for which we should fight in the political arena.
Do we want arts organizations to be supported by public funding?
Then we should fight for public support for the arts rather than allowing commercial interests to dilute the term to mean anything that can be sold to the public.
Should the arts be part of a public education?
Then we had best weigh in when political figures begin to debate curriculum standards for our schools.
Would our fight to keep live music available to the public be better served by truth-in-advertising statutes — or laissez-faire competition?
All of these issues cry out for our involvement in the political process.
Of course, some members will still assert that we can advocate for political positions without endorsing candidates that some find unappealing.
But this is naïve.
Public policy is ultimately determined by legislation and, if we wish to have a voice in legislation, we have to have friends at every level of government.
That means picking the issues that are most important to our members and our success at the bargaining table, then endorsing candidates and building coalitions to pass legislation that is important to us in that regard.
I’m pleased that our political action director, Julia Smith, has completed a survey on the subject of political involvement and that so many members chose to participate and volunteer for the new Political Action Committee.
We have many important priorities that we should pursue:
- Passage of H.R. 676 (universal healthcare)
- Support for funding for arts organizations and arts education
- Media reform
- An “audience bill of rights” — so that when people buy tickets for live music, they get live music!
Only with the active participation of large numbers of members can our voice be heard on these issues and others that impact our livelihoods and the union’s ability to continue effective representation of the membership.
I hope that many of you will choose to join those who have already volunteered so that we can be successful in this important endeavor.