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Labor Needs “that Vision Thing”


OAKLAND, CA (11/9/04) — There’s no question that labor pulled out all the stops to defeat George Bush. Over 2000 members of the country’s largest union, the Service Employees (SEIU), left their jobs to go campaign in battleground states, and the organization budgeted $65 million for the campaign. The AFL-CIO itself fielded 5000 fulltime staffers and 225,000 volunteers.

 

That made Bush’s victory a hard one to swallow. For many of the most progressive leaders of US labor, however, it was more than just bitter – it was threatening. “We have no alternative now but to resist at every level,” said Stuart Acuff, the AFL-CIO’s organizing director. “And one of the things we have to anticipate is the repression of political enemies. We’re all going to have to stand up for each other.” Dolores Huerta, legendary co-founder of the United Farm Workers, was even more blunt. “We might as well start organizing now, if we don’t want to run for cover after this one,” she warned.

 

Unions were motivated by the same track record that now concerns them. The first Bush administration compiled a four-year history of orders prohibiting unions in government departments, federal injunctions during lockouts and strikes, rollbacks of overtime and worker protection legislation, and job losses greater than any administration since Herbert Hoover. This was the record unions sought to put in front of their own members, and to carry to the nation’s workers in general.

 

In many ways, union members heeded the call. Eliseo Medina, SEIU executive vice-president, called the mobilization unprecedented, and said that despite Bush’s victory, “thousands and thousands of members participated in this effort.” That, he said, gives labor a base to resist the attacks it now expects from a second Bush administration. “We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he cautioned. “We still have a battle for health insurance, for decent wages, and for immigrant worker rights. If we’re going to succeed, not just in making positive changes, but in making sure things don’t get worse, we’re going to need an engaged membership and engaged communities. If we don’t speak up, nobody else is going to.”

 

As is the case in every national election, unions contributed votes to the Democratic side of the ticket in larger proportions than their share of the population. Union members make up 13% of the workforce, but their household represent 24% of the electorate, or about 27 million votes. The Peter Hart poll gave Kerry a 65-33% lead among those voters. In the battleground states, where unions put most of their resources, the poll gave Kerry a slightly greater, 68-31% edge. A CNN poll was similar – 60-39% for Kerry.

 

While Kerry won a majority among voters of color, he lost among white voters – except union members. He lost white men by an 18% difference, but won white male unionists by 21%, and lost white women by 4% while carrying white union women by 35%.

 

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told a post-election news conference that in the future, “we have to do more.” Huerta, however, felt it was the Kerry campaign that could have done more, especially in combating the use of abortion and gay marriage by the Republican Party. “There were little papers printed in Spanish and English, distributed throughout the Latino community, saying a vote for Kerry was a sin,” she explained. “We only got 54% of the women’s vote, which was down from 62%. That means we lost a lot among women. You need organizers on the ground. People get so confused by television, and never hear the truth. Unless you have someone who hand carries the message, we’re going to lose every time.”

 

Acuff saw the same problem campaigning in Wisconsin. “In the upper Midwest, there was an alignment for many years between workers, union members and Catholics. That alignment has been broken. We saw a lot of confused and conflicted working people in Wisconsin in this election, particularly over the issue of abortion.”

 

Huerta and Acuff point to an important division, not just in the electorate in general, but among union members. Only 16% of union voters listed “moral values” as their prime interest, but Bush won 59% of their votes. Unions concentrated their attack on the economy, which 42% of union voters listed as their main concern. Kerry took 71% of those votes.

 

But while the war in Iraq made constant headlines, and was the main feature of presidential debates, the official AFL-CIO campaign had little to say about it. Some unions, like SEIU, used their own set of campaign points that condemned the war. But while 40% of union members listed Iraq as their primary issue, the 51% who went to Kerry didn’t do so because of convincing arguments by the AFL-CIO.

 

This split in labor was visible even during the primaries, when public sector unions in particular supported Howard Dean because of his antiwar stance. “It’s wrong to think that speaking out on the war is the kiss of death in November,” Medina warned at the time. “It’s draining resources needed at home, leaving a huge deficit leading to the loss of jobs, while kids of working families are being sent to fight and die.” Since last summer, labor opposition has grown. Art Pulaski, executive secretary of the California Labor Federation (the AFL-CIO’s largest state body), declared after Kerry’s loss that “opposition to the war is going to swell in labor. It’s going to be part of our opposition to everything the administration does.” Acuff called the war “not only unnecessary but unjust. Waving the bloody shirt may work, but it doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s certainly not about combating terrorism or keeping this country safe. It’s about Bush’s political agenda.”

 

While many labor activists foresee a long series of defensive battles throughout a second Bush term, some still see the opportunity to advance toward labor goals, healthcare in particular. In California, the effort by unions and healthcare advocates to pass Proposition 72, which would have required large employers to provide health insurance for their workers, failed narrowly. “This is just another example of how far large corporations will go to avoid responsibility to their employees and the public,” Pulaski fumed. “As a result, all of us will pay more for our healthcare. Many will lose their insurance, and taxpayers will subsidize Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s. This issue is not going away.”

 

Medina even foresees the possibility of putting a similar measure on the California ballot in 2006. “The solution is going to have to begin at the state, not at the Federal level,” he asserted. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

 

Acuff, who won notoriety in 1994 by leading sit-ins in the office of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, protesting the “Contract on America,” warned that new campaigns of resistance and civil disobedience might be in the works. He concluded that unions have to go beyond just talking about bread and butter issues. Over the long haul, he said, the key problem for labor was “the vision thing” – unions need to present an alternative to the moral and social values trumpeted by the religious right.

 

“We need to define an agenda that has the potential to change peoples’ lives,” he explained, “that’s more than just tinkering around the edges. We don’t need to retreat on an agenda of fundamental change, including immigration, healthcare and the right to organize. That would be a huge mistake. But we need to talk about our values, that provide the foundation for that agenda – greater liberation for human beings, greater freedom, greater opportunity, more justice in the country and in the world.”

 

[David Bacon is a reporter and photographer specializing in labor issues. He can be reached at: [email protected]]

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