Will Kerry Stand Up for Workers?

PASQUALINO COLOMBARO

This article is from the September/October 2004 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2004/0904colombaro.html


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This article is from the September/October 2004 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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The AFL-CIO has committed $44 million to the election of John Kerry. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest union in the country, committed $65 million and is working with the labor-sponsored political organization Americans Coming Together to raise another $130 million. Other unions are shelling out millions more to mobilize their members in 16 battleground states. But what would organized labor and other working people actually stand to gain from a Kerry victory?

A look at the Democratic nominee's campaign strategy is not exactly reassuring. He's running as a fiscal conservative, a war hero, and a devout Roman Catholic. Rather than pursuing the mass of the politically disenfranchised (the 50% of the voting age public that did not vote in the last election) or appealing to minorities or his liberal base, he's set his sights on the elusive "swing voter," voting white males aged 25 to 45 who earn less than $60,000 per year-about 12% of the white male vote. This camp harbors grave doubts about core liberal issues like abortion, gay marriage, environmental protection, and pay equity, and supports America's imperial right to pre-emptively invade other sovereign countries.

Senator Kerry's voting record is a mixed bag-he's stood firm on certain labor issues, but falls way short of the mark on trade issues and militarism. His 2003 voting record received a rating of 100% from the AFL-CIO. Kerry opposed Bush's overtime rules, efforts to privatize government jobs, and the corporate gift bag otherwise known as the Medicare prescription drug program. And he has come around on reforming labor law to make "card check recognition" binding on employers. (This would require companies to recognize a union automatically if a majority of employees sign authorization cards in a union campaign.)

On the other hand, Kerry has a long ugly record of support for unregulated free-trade policies: he voted for NAFTA in 1993 and voted twice to grant George W. Bush "fast track" authority, which would preclude Congress from amending trade pacts. Last but not least, Kerry voted for and recently reaffirmed his decision to grant Bush a free hand in his permanent war on terror, and he insists that, if elected, he will not reduce the military budget.

In the past two and a half decades, labor has withstood an onslaught of pro-corporate, pro-wealth, anti-worker policies. Since the Reagan era, the right has ruthlessly operated the government's financial levers of power to promote its class interests at the cost of working people. It's engineered unheard-of transfers of wealth and income from the bottom 80% to the top 20% of the population, primarily by securing dozens of hefty tax cuts and credits for the rich and for corporations. Meanwhile the national debt has skyrocketed, increasing by 24% to $7 trillion over the past four years alone, mainly to fund the greatest arms build-up in the history of humankind. The U.S. military-security complex now gets more than $500 billion federal dollars per year, the equivalent of half of all discretionary spending, siphoning resources away from investments in schools, social entitlements, and public infrastructure.

Is there any reason to think the Democratic presidential nominee will reverse these trends? The "neoliberal" doctrine first championed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s was, after all, carried forward, to different degrees, by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s: witness NAFTA and welfare reform. Working people continue to pay the price for these neoliberal policies, which have resulted in the net reduction in jobs; growing long-term unemployment; mass job insecurity; stagnant and falling wages; cuts in training and paid time off; the decline of health, unemployment, and pension insurance; a widespread lack of protections against wanton dismissal; and the dismantling of social programs of all kinds.

While Kerry's position on labor issues is stronger than Clinton's was, much of his platform adheres to the neoliberal line. What will Kerry really have the will or capacity to do once elected? What exactly is his vision for the economy? We don't yet know, and therein lies a huge uncertainty for the labor movement supporting his campaign.

The candidate has made clear that he will try to reverse some of the most egregious Bush tax cuts, including the income tax cut to the top 1%. He has pledged to expand health insurance coverage and to "expand the middle class," without increasing the $435 billion budget deficit.

While these pledges do distinguish Kerry from Bush, his planned reforms don't begin to compare to the volume of tax cuts granted to corporations and wealthy individuals or to the full range of pro-corporate economic policies that have been implemented over the past quarter century. His reforms, constrained as they are by his commitments to maintain military spending and reduce the budget deficit, will barely begin to make up the ground that's been lost in the past quarter-century. All Kerry seems to be promising is that he won't be as bad and dishonest as Bush, that he won't make things worse for workers, and that he will advocate for some economic and social ameliorations.

A lot is at stake. Organized labor's bargaining power has been cornered and corralled to specific employers in very few economic sectors. After 50 years of steady decline, many observers fear labor may be on the brink of economic and political irrelevance. This is a historic juncture. Labor urgently needs to pull back from the brink and reverse its downward course. To do so will require not only mass mobilization, but labor law reforms and social spending to shore up basic labor rights and entitlements.

What U.S. labor really needs, to stem its decline, is a set of labor rights similar to those still enjoyed by their European counterparts. Moreover, the American (and global) labor force, taken as a social class, needs the resources and political access to steer the economy on a regional, national, and global scale, across employers and economic sectors.

If a victorious Kerry (and a supportive Congress) were to break with neoliberal doctrine and back progress of this sort, organized and unorganized U.S. and world workers would see their conditions improve markedly. Card check recognition, though a step in the right direction, falls well short of what is needed.

With the overall rate of union membership (and the employment protections and social benefits it provides) at a dismal low of 12.9% in the United States (8% in the private service sector), labor's political bargaining power is also weak in relation to the corporate establishment within the Democratic Party.

The party's tepid program, and organized labor's own modest post-election expectations, prompted Andy Stern, president of SEIU, to warn in July of the real danger that after a Kerry victory, things could be back to "business as usual" for the Democrats and the AFL-CIO, according to the Washington Post. That is, labor could see little real progress for all its efforts. Kerry will probably reward organized labor as a special interest group first, and perhaps repay rank-and-file union members with some modest reforms, second. The needs of the close to 90% of workers who are unorganized and uncovered will likely be left for last once again.

Is there any hope that continued pressure and mass mobilization for an effective set of labor rights and entitlements could pressure Kerry into a stronger pro-labor position? There is always hope. But despite recent reform and mobilization efforts by the AFL-CIO and many international unions, U.S. organized labor appears far from reaching the levels of internal unity, democracy, coordination, and legitimacy within the larger community of working people which are necessary to effectively keep Kerry's (or Bush's) feet to the fire.

Pasqualino Colombaro has been a social and labor activist in Boston for the past 30 years.