washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Iraq Overshadows Labor’s Agenda

Labor Day ’07 finds America’s union movement in a paradoxical situation with respect to its political influence. First, the bad news. Union representation has been declining significantly, as E. J. Dionne points out in his Labor Day column at WaPo.

Labor’s political gains have occurred in the face of a steady decline in its private-sector role. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24 percent of the American work force was unionized in 1973 and unionization rates were roughly equal in the public and private sectors. The latest figures, for 2006, show a decline in unionization to 12 percent of the workforce and a radical shift in labor’s composition: Now only 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to unions, compared with 36 percent in the public sector.

But numbers can be deceptive, as Dionne concludes:

The shift in labor’s base and the overall drop in membership may be central to both the growing political sophistication and influence of the unions. The public-sector unions, with an obvious interest in the outcome of elections, have developed highly effective political operations. This is true of the teachers and nurses, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the police and firefighters, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
…Thus the paradox on Labor Day 2007: At a moment of organizational weakness, labor’s political influence and ideological appeal may be as strong as at any time since the New Deal. Every Democrat running for president seems to know this.

In terms of issues, health care reform now tops Labor’s agenda. In his Labor Day message, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, launched a campaign for universal, comprehensive health care. Sweeney points out that one fourth of voters in ’06 were union members, and says:

it’s painful this Labor Day to look around and see America isn’t working the way it should… One of the greatest economic burdens working families face today is the insane, out-of-control cost of health care. One in four Americans say their family has had a problem paying for medical care during the past year. The cost of health care — rising far faster than workers’ wages or inflation — is a major factor in housing problems and bankruptcies. In fact, every 30 seconds in the United States someone files for bankruptcy in the aftermath of a serious health problem.
Meanwhile, insurance and drug companies are making stunning profits, health insurance CEOs averaged $8.7 million in 2006 compensation and pharmaceutical company CEOs pulled down an average of $4.4 million.
The rest of us aren’t faring so well. The annual premium cost for a family health plan has close to doubled since 2000, from $6,351 to an astonishing $11,480…As costs grow higher, fewer employers are providing health coverage for employees–and fewer workers are able to afford their share of the costs or to buy policies on their own. The outrageous price tags on insurance policies are driving increases in the number of people without coverage. The federal government just let us know that another 2.2 million people — including 600,000 more children — lost health insurance last year, meaning 47 million of us now cannot afford to get sick.
In the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth, that is just not acceptable. In America, no one should go without health care.

See also the AFL-CIO’s guide to where each of the presidential candidates of both parties stand on six key “working family issues”: the Employee Free Choice Act; Good Jobs; Health Care; Trade and Manufacturing; Retirement Security; and Education.
Union endorsements of presidential candidates are somewhat spread out thus far. Dodd has been endorsed by the Firefighters union. Clinton has the nod from the Machinists and the United Transportation Union. Edwards, who may get the lion’s share of endorsements in the months ahead, has been endorsed by the Carpenters Union. Change to Win Chair Anna Burger, quoted in Dionne’s column, says the labor movement sees a field of Democratic candidates who believe that “unions are the solution, not the problem
In an interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales on Democracy Now, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union and author of “A Country That Works: Getting America Back On Track,” also expressed his concern about Democratic leaders’ need for unity on health care reform:

…the employer-based healthcare system served us well, but it’s a relic of the industrial era. We need a new universal 21st century healthcare system, because in the end, our employers just can’t compete in a global economy when they are putting the price of healthcare on the cost of their products and their competitors aren’t. It’s just not good economics. And at the same time, we have the greatest healthcare system in the world, and now 46 million people don’t have access to it.
…I’m so encouraged that we may see a change in Washington, but yet I’m so concerned that Democrats don’t understand. Most people get up every day, and they don’t think about whether they are in a red state or a blue state. They think about how they’re going to get their kids to work, how they’re going to be able to take care of their aging mother, and how are they going to pay their healthcare bills. Half of the bankruptcies in the United States are due to unpaid healthcare bills. CAP and SEIU just released a report about how middle-income people can’t afford one medical emergency. How can Democrats say we don’t need a new universal healthcare system? I mean, it is so basic and so important to America’s competitiveness. If the Democrats want to be the leaders in the House and the leaders in the Senate, which I hope they soon will be, then they need to lead, as well.

Stern, who lead a group of unions into a new labor coalition, Change to Win in 2005, says “We are at a crucial moment, a moment that makes us ask what kind of country we want to be.” He advocates “new models of organizing” and had this to say about the importance of a stronger union movement in his HuffPo post for Labor Day:

This Labor Day, a greater percentage of the economy is going to profits than to wages, and a majority of parents believe their children will be worse off economically. Tens of millions of people in the U.S. are working harder than ever before, but they’re still falling behind….The answer to that question must include more workers uniting in unions — the labor movement. Unions have always been the best anti-poverty, best pro-health care, best pro-family program around. Unions have done more to help working people experience economic success than any other program.

But the war in Iraq remains a potent obstacle to winning social reforms in all of these areas. Both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win web pages have little to say about the Iraq quagmire, an ignored ‘elephant in the room.’ Yet it makes no sense to avoid the issue, when Iraq-related expenditures now consume 10 percent of the federal budget, according to Robert Sunshine, assistant director for budget analysis of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
As the traditional end of Summer, Labor Day marks the moment when greater numbers of Americans begin to pay more attention to the upcomming primary races. In the months ahead, American voters will increasingly turn their attention to the positions of candidates on the key issues noted by Sweeney and Stern. But voters also understand that progress on the social and economic agendas of both labor and the Democratic Party is being held hostage to the Iraq War. Ending it should be the central priority of both unions and the Democrats.

4 comments on “Iraq Overshadows Labor’s Agenda

  1. Thomas More on

    I must respectfully disagree with the union view then. The union movement, indeed the civil rights movement too was founded and pursued based on the rule of law. That was the foundation of their argument and what they used to ultimately triumph.
    This person advocates breaking the law, condones it, then dress’s it in “nobel” finery. “We are all workers together”. Thats no Democratic standard. Thats just leftist rhetoric.
    As he defends illegal alien workers in league with the ACLU, a brother union, the Teamsters are attacking Mexican truckers. Perhaps its whatever is in their best interest at the time? We used to call them “opportunists”
    “but, as Democrats we must all recognize – and respect – the deep roots of this philosophy and these principles within our party – from the era of Roosevelt and the New Deal to the life and work of Martin Luther King.”
    I would beg to disagree with this. If FDR or MLK were here today they would never advocate breaking the law, protecting illegal aliens nor attacking the livlihood of the American worker.
    If this is the Democratic party there will be a lot of defeat in our future.

  2. Joe Corso on

    The issue of how to treat the vast number of “illegal” or “undocumented” immigrant workers who now live and work in the United States is not simple or self-evident and attempts – such as the one above – to treat it as such are invariably inadequate.
    The labor movement has a clear and logical position on this issue – one that is deeply rooted in the fundamental ideals and principles upon which the union movement was created. A person may not agree with the trade union view, but simply ignoring it serves only to avoid the serious discussion of what can and should be done.
    Here are a few excerpts from a recent speech by Stewart Acuff, National AFL-CIO Organizing Director which illustrate the connection the trade union movement sees between their defense of all American workers rights and interests and their defense of “illegal” or “undocumented” workers.
    “…The reason this economy is not working for working families is because of a 30-year sustained, strategic, intentional assault on workers, unions, worker power, and our standard of living and quality of life…This assault has taken several forms: outsourcing, de-industrialization, so-called “free trade,” small government, deregulation, privatization, and the most important—the destruction of any freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.
    The ranks of the uninsured continue to rise. Today, over 46 million Americans have no health insurance at all, despite the fact that as a nation we spend more on health care than any other country.
    …workers are victimized by a corporate-fueled economic race to the bottom…a globalization scheme that protects intellectual property rights but will not protect children….a scheme that forces nine-year-old kids to learn to sew but denies them the opportunity to learn to read…
    Here in the United States, over the past five years, over 20,000 workers a year have been fired or victimized for trying to form unions…when faced with an organizing campaign: Half of the employers threaten to shut down the facility or the enterprise or to move it offshore…a quarter of all American employers, when faced with an organizing campaign, fire their worker leaders.
    A corrupt corporate culture and its radical, right-wing Republican political friends tell us that these economic facts are unavoidable, a result of nature or divine will or “market forces.” But it does not have to be this way.
    We know we cannot change this alone. We all need one another.
    Imagine you are a Latino immigrant construction worker in Phoenix, Arizona. You work very hard, 60–80 hours per week in 110–115 degrees, with no water breaks, for just over minimum wage, with no benefits and no dignity. And you want more than anything in the world to provide a life of dignity for your family. You want your own apartment for your family and you want to be able to take your kids to the doctor when they get sick. As it is now, when your baby is sick and cries all night, there is nothing you can do but stay up and cry with her. So you begin to talk with your co-workers, and you call the Sheet Metal Workers or the Painters Union or the AFL-CIO, and you begin to engage in one of the highest forms of human endeavor—organizing to try to lift up everyone together—everyone’s kids, every family, to collectively assert your dignity and demand respect. Not to do what corporate America says to do, not to get ahead by yourself, not to push anyone aside or to climb over anybody’s back or kiss the boss’s boots. For your trouble, you lose your job and your livelihood, you are sent back to Mexico, and you lose your kids’ futures.
    Here is how we must look at immigration. If you come across a border to find work and a future for your family, to provide food for your kids, you are not illegal, you are my sister, and you are my brother.
    It is past time to break down every barrier between workers, to knock down anything that comes between us… (we are) one movement, one people, one struggle.”
    Again, one can disagree with the trade union view, but, as Democrats we must all recognize – and respect – the deep roots of this philosophy and these principles within our party – from the era of Roosevelt and the New Deal to the life and work of Martin Luther King.
    Democrats should ask themselves the following question: if we abandon this trade union philosophy and tradition, with what shall we replace it, and what then will we become?

  3. Thomas More on

    Its fairly hard to take advice from Stern or the AFL-CIO on health care or labor when they both advocate illegal immigration and open borders.
    they leave their credibility on the subject of the American worker at the door when the advocate illegal immigration and taking jobs from Americans.

  4. Albert Whited on

    Workers must recognize that the health care “benefit” is now the cruelest whip at their backs in the workplace. One false step, and they and their families are denied access to vital services. Even in a nation with the best quality of health care they find themselves, as it were in the words of Coleridge, with “Water, water, everywhere. Nor any drop to drink.”
    Health care, it seems, is a linchpin to the rest of Labor’s woes. How can it protest the shipping of good jobs overseas and the ravages of unregulated trade when not only its livelihood, but also its “life-lihood” are so imperiled?
    Now not even the Hippocratic Oath can save an uninsured person, when a doctor’s services are held in abeyance until ability to pay is proven. Even the underinsured are at risk, as the young mother in Michael Moore’s “Sicko” so pitifully learns. Some benefit when a niggardly HMO trumps the Hippocratic Oath, leaving its “customer” with naught but lamentations for a dead child!
    When will we as a people storm the barricades and tear down this system of tyrrany and oppression? When will we recognize the entire health insurance industry for the ghouls they are, (obscenely) profiting by the very human condition? Life and its maintenance are not choices to take nor risks to be insured. They are guaranteed necessities for all in the fullness of time. As such they should be provided for all by common means, as such is the most economical way of doing so. Let’s not speak of “required insurance”, as if our health were a car. Let’s not speak of a “single payer to the insurance company” leeches, since they are nothing but a useless layer of fat between citizens and their health care services.
    The Democratic Party should, just as with the donations of Mr. Hsu, eschew donations from health insurance companies and HMOs. Too long have we financed campaigns on their largesse. Only when their influence is purged from our budgets will a universal National Health Service be recognized.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.