Politics, politics and almost nothing but politics. That’s what we’re hearing from America’s unions these days. For they’re waging one of the biggest and most expensive political campaigns in labor history.
More than $40 million, the most unions have ever spent on a midterm election, is helping labor-friendly Democrats in some 200 House, Senate, gubernatorial and state legislative races.
Above all, unions need their allies to wrest control of Congress from the decidedly unfriendly Republicans who’ve been in charge far too long for the good of unions or anyone else — save perhaps for the very wealthy. A change in Congressional leadership undoubtedly would lead to enactment of at least some of the badly needed legal reforms sought by labor and provide a check on the blatantly anti-labor actions of President Bush.
It’s true enough that unions represent only about 12.5 percent of the country’s workers, but those workers and their unions are extremely effective politically. They represent a serious threat to the GOP – especially now, with polls showing a steady decline in public support for Bush and his congressional allies.
The AFL-CIO and its 53 affiliated unions, the recently formed Change to Win federation of seven major unions and the independent National Education Association are working closely together, putting hundreds of thousands of their 18 million members to work on election campaigns. They’re registering voters, circulating millions of leaflets, contacting millions of voters directly, holding rallies and demonstrations, and more.
Union members and their families alone should have a significant impact. More than 12 million are registered to vote – one-fourth of the total of all voters in the 2004 presidential election. Only about 60 percent supported Democrat John Kerry in that contest, but this year Democratic candidates are almost certain to get much stronger support from unionists – perhaps decisive support that could set the tone for the 2008 presidential race.
“Union members feel ‘enough is enough’,” says AFL-CIO Political Director Karen Ackerman. “This is a moment unlike any we’ve seen in a long, long time …. We have to change the direction of this country.”
As the AFL-CIO noted in a Labor Day message, “Our nation is at a tipping point. People are working harder and making less. We’re in a health care crisis that’s deeper than any of us ever imagined. We all worry about how we’ll retire with dignity. A good middle-class life is increasingly out of reach. Whoever thought that in America our children might not be better off than their parents?”
Labor’s agenda forcefully addresses those concerns and others of obvious importance to most Americans, union members or not. Raising the pitifully inadequate minimum wage is high on the agenda. So is the creation of a federally-sponsored universal health care system and a pension system that would guarantee all workers decent retirement benefits financed jointly by government and employers.
Unions also are seeking “more corporate accountability, such as limits on CEO pay and lavish pensions” and fair trade laws that “hold nations accountable when they violate workers’ rights.”
Labor is especially seeking much tighter enforcement of the basic labor laws that are openly undermined by the Bush administration. The administration has done almost nothing to carry out its legal obligation to block employers from interfering in union organizing drives — a major cause for the decline in union membership.
Nor has the administration done anything to curb the steady increase in on-the-job accidents that maim and kill more than 1.5 million workers every year. It has instead severely weakened federal safety regulations and their enforcement. President Bush, for instance, got Congress to repeal regulations enacted by the Clinton administration that required employers to protect workers from the repetitive motion injuries that alone account for more than 60 percent of all workplace injuries, some of them permanently disabling.
Even if only a small part of labor’s agenda is enacted, if unions could help elect enough of their Democratic allies to do that — and hopefully more — election day could truly be a day of celebration.
Copyright (c) 2006 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.