Jul 24, 2008

Labor and Progressives: Like Peanut Butter and Jelly


Just the other day I and many other labor folks were lamenting the fact that the liberal blogosphere has zero time for the labor movement these days—apart, of course, from thanking us for bringing them the weekend, declaring that we’re no longer relevant, and then quickly moving on to a sexier progressive topic.

Well, those of us working in the labor movement have known for some time that this attitude is, to put it politely, a crock of you-know-what. Liberals have been, albeit unknowingly, parroting Republican talking points on this issue and not acknowledging the fact that the progressive movement NEEDS labor just as much as labor needs the progressive movement.

So a bunch of us labor people met and caucused at Netroots Nation in Austin last week, and we decided to take back Labor Day--and to invite progressive bloggers to join us in doing so. There is (already!!!) a website called http://www.takebacklaborday.org/.

See, labor and progressives have traditionally gone together like peanut butter and jelly. Or, really, like smooth peanut butter and chunky peanut butter. (Don’t ask me which is which—I think I’ve extended the metaphor as far as it can go.) But in the late seventies/eighties, union membership began to decline. And some union members, screwed out of their job or pension or both, tuned out of politics or turned to social issues and thus to the right. So a lot of progressives think labor simply failed, or abandoned the left, and RIP as far as they’re concerned.

What progressives need to understand (and what we as labor people sometimes don’t do a very good job of explaining—we need to do better and educate more) is that unions didn’t just kind of fail on their own. It wasn’t like people collectively went, "Oh, boy, those unions were great in their day, but now that we’re all doing so well under Carter and Reagan, we just don’t need ‘em anymore."

Hell, no. What happened was, unions came under assault, big time, from the Right. And from corporate America. Union busting as a profession popped up. Politicians failed to keep their promises on labor and fed unions to the wolves. The American auto industry and other strongly union industries began to collapse.

And it’s taken until now for unions to finally start recovering. To start figuring out a different way to do things. To start opening up, partnering with communities and other organizations on environmental initiatives, on health care, on pro labor bills like the Employee Free Choice Act that will help carve out a path once more to a middle class life for millions of Americans, to take on the media myths and challenge union-busters at their own game, and to begin reaching out on a global scale and doing union business in a very different way.

We’re out there, furthering a progressive agenda. But we need the progressive community’s help to do it. To get the word out and help people understand that health care, immigration, wages, the right to choose a union—these aren’t just union issues. They are fundamental issues for all Americans, that get right at the heart of who we are as a nation and what we truly value. As David Sirota said on the "Middle Class isn’t Middle of the Road" panel at Netroots, labor needs to be a vital part of the blogosphere, of the Netroots discussion.

And progressives need labor, too. Because, as David Bonior said, (in another terrific Netroots panel, "Growing the American Dream Movement") "You cannot have a successful progressive movement today without unions." And it’s true. As Bonior pointed out, guess what percentage of total voters are union members? A QUARTER. Twenty five percent. Union members vote in higher percentages than average Americans. And they tend to vote more progressively than their non-union counterparts. They also tend to be more engaged and better informed, thanks to their relationship with their union and the information their union provides them about races and candidates.

And that’s exactly why progressives need to be joining us in building up the union movement, by helping us promote union work and championing bills like the Employee Free Choice Act—a bill that lets union members choose a union without company interference. Because if we don’t keep building up union membership—and union power—then we as progressives as well as labor activists will surely fail. As Bonior pointed out, if you look at the 2000 or 2004 elections, right-to-work states—where union membership is much weaker—formed the basis of an anti-progressive movement.

But where unions are strong, we can mobilize and engage our membership on all sorts of progressive issues. We can once again serve as the backbone of the "take action" wing of the Democratic Party.

Labor is not the dead past. We are engaged in much the same issues most progressives are engaged in—the same struggles. We’re fighting for green, union jobs, promoting progressive policy ideas, partnering with global unions to make worker justice a worldwide issue and address human rights concerns everywhere, fighting for universal health care, holding corporations and CEOS accountable, fighting to end robber baron-like levels of wage inequality, and pushing to fix our broken immigration system. We’re not the past. We’re the future—the only future—of the American middle class.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that, "When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself, but the whole society." We can do that again.

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