Thursday, February 7, 2008

Rebuilding the Labor Movement

Check out this wonderful, thought-provoking dialogue taking place on The Huffington Post between Lynn Williams, the former President of the United Steel Workers union and
Alan Maki
, the Director of Organizing for the Midwest Casino Workers Organizing Council.

Now, if we could combine the general direction articulated by Lynn Williams with the specific suggestions, taking into consideration the friendly criticism offered up by Alan Maki, we would have an extremely good progressive agenda to build a good solid movement for peace and social justice around.

I can't help but getting excited and enthusiastic when I see a discussion like this unfolding:

Lynn R. Williams

Lynn R. Williams

Rebuilding the Labor Movement

Posted January 31, 2008 | 12:32 PM (EST)

stumbleupon :Rebuilding the Labor Movement

Prostrating himself before the rich, manipulating rules of free enterprise to benefit the few at the top, President Bush has bungled America's economy the way he did most of the businesses he managed before taking political office. Now, he's pushing a stimulus package that's essentially hush money -- some cash intended to mollify and silence the middle class.

It won't, however, provide immediate help to those most in need -- the poor desperate for a few more food stamps or the unemployed seeking an extension of unemployment compensation -- the very sort of aid that the Congressional Budget Office ranked as more effective than tax rebates for stimulating the economy.

In addition, Bush's plan, the one he pushed in his State of the Union address Monday night, won't accomplish any long-term, significant goals for this country. The kind of objectives that President Franklin D. Roosevelt set with his Works Progress Administration. The WPA employed people. They constructed public structures that can still be seen today across America. They added enduring value to this country. The combined effect of employment and construction stimulated the economy.

It wasn't a quick fix. But the Congressional Budget Office doesn't believe the tax rebates will be quick, possibly arriving in citizens' hands in July, or necessarily a fix.

This, really, is nothing more than a contemptible attempt to repair the deep damage done by 30 years of bad economic policies. The Reagan/Bush economic practices have shredded the social safety nets that were so carefully crafted over the post war progressive era, from FDR's New Deal through the Civil Rights Act and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.

The worst excesses of the past, those that FDR railed against, those that separated working people from the truly wealthy, have grown exponentially.

As the economy sours, as discontent with the treasury-draining war in Iraq rises, and as Americans increasingly lay blame for the country's woes on the failed political policy of catering to corporations, it's time for progressives to develop their own vision for the future.

Three objectives should dominate in plans for a new progressive era.

First, life should provide a reasonable level of economic security for all. People should be confident that their basic needs will be met, where their next meal will come from, where they will lay their heads at night.

Beyond that there should be opportunity -- opportunity to live life more fully, to grow one's talents, to accumulate more of this world's goods, to contribute more to humankind's knowledge and accomplishments.

And lastly, there should be an emphasis on quality -- quality in everything we do, we build, we create, we present.

The concept of economic security is best expressed by FDR. In 1941, he said the United States looked forward to a world founded on four essential freedoms. They were freedom of speech and to worship, but also freedom from want and from fear. He said freedom from want meant that in peacetime, a nation had an obligation to seek healthy lives for its citizens.

This surely means the availability of decent jobs and the existence of a decent minimum wage and minimum level of vacation and benefits. Certainly the right to health care would be part of any civilized definition of freedom from want or economic security.

My own experience with the evolution and provision of health care may prove instructive, as I was in Canada during the time the national program developed there.

It works marvelously well from the experience of my family. My mother lived in a nursing home for the last ten years of her life, and it cost only the difference between a double room and her single. Three of my four children and their families live under it, and it has been just fine (the fourth lives out of the country). I have been living under it again since returning to Canada after my retirement as president of the Steelworkers and have yet to pay a cent for a covered service, which is virtually everything.

It is truly universal. It is paid for out of tax revenue. As a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it is much less expensive than the world's highest percentage of GDP spent on health care in the United States. The U.S. spends $6,102 per person as compared to Canada's $3,165. Yet, the results are measurably better in Canada, where there is greater longevity and lower infant mortality.

Every advanced country in the world, with the exception only of the U.S., has some version of a public health insurance plan. None is perfect, but what system is? Virtually all have better statistics than the U.S., are less costly, and provide care to everyone.

Another critically important element in economic security is a reasonable minimum wage, a priority cruelly neglected in the U.S. The opposition always maintains that raising it will increase unemployment. A few years ago, Allan Kreuger a Princeton economist, and some of his colleagues examined the results of an increase in minimum wage among 330 fast food workers in New Jersey and another 80 plus in Pennsylvania, following an increase in the minimum wage in New Jersey to $5.50 an hour. The study found no evidence that it increased unemployment. A decent minimum should be established, and it should rise automatically with inflation.

Wages, of course, aren't helpful without job security. In recent years, the outsourcing of jobs through so-called free trade has eroded all employment security in the U.S. So much of what is talked about as free trade really is not trade at all, in the sense of the classical economists. Instead it is nothing more than the outsourcing of jobs to be performed offshore for unbelievably lower wages with the goods or services then shipped back, with a devastating impact on economic security. It is not unusual to see the entire economic base of a community wiped out in this way.

Many of these arrangements are with countries that have authoritarian governments, manipulating their unions and controlling wages and conditions, so that anything resembling what the theoreticians describe as free trade in not remotely possible. One cannot have free trade with slave societies.

A new progressive era must deal effectively with all these issues. What is needed is to use the leverage of market access to raise wages in the developing countries, so that they may embark on the path, not of being destitute consumers, but of becoming income-earning producers and therefore customers of their own products. Then they can also become customers on the world stage. They can then maintain jobs in the producing countries, not undercutting and destroying them, but rather enabling all countries to become buyers and sellers, to go about looking for new creative ways to be productive.

This dynamic cannot be overemphasized. Circumstances such as exist in Nigeria where the delta, rich with oil, provides virtually no benefits to the local population, or in the mineral-rich Congo, where the wealth disappears in corruption, both local and international, greatly exacerbate all the problems and do nothing to relieve any of them. If the citizens of these countries were sharing in the wealth of their own resources, they could be significant customers, making an enormous contribution to the well-being of their own people and of people around the world.

What labor seeks is fair trade agreements that include guarantees of human rights, of the right to organize and bargain collectively, that require environmental standards and safety and health standards. If we can protect intellectual property rights in trade agreements, as we do, we can protect human rights and the environment.

A new progressive era also requires that the labor movement be rebuilt and restored to its counterbalancing position in our society. The attack on the movement in the private sector over the past 30 years has had destructive results for everybody. It is instructive that the corporations buying up our companies come in many instances from countries where the labor movement's role in economic and social decision making is much more accepted as the way businesses operate. This is true across Europe and in Brazil, where the president of the country is the former president of the Metalworkers Union.

There is really only one institution that represents the democratically determined voice of the people in economic matters and that is the labor movement. That is why economies are more balanced, inequality is more contained and pressures to help the less fortunate are more sustained in those societies where there is a vigorous and strong labor movement.

Rebuilding the labor movement and, and the same time, ensuring that this country sustains manufacturing jobs will provide opportunities for all Americans that are essential to maintaining a solid middle class.

Lastly, in this new progressive era, there is the issue of quality, a word that encompasses a number of ideas. If we are to give our beautiful environment on planet Earth its proper respect, the reckless and wasteful use of resources of all kinds that has been a hallmark of so much of our economy must be significantly modified. This leads directly to the quality of the processes of production, in that use should be made through participative structures of the talents of all who are involved, including the union, and careful attention given to establishing and maintaining safe conditions and protection against occupational disease.

For some time now, the wonders of technology have led to speculation that human labor might be reduced, since so much abundance can be produced so efficiently. Still, Americans, living in the richest country on the face of the globe, have until recently worked the longest hours. Maybe now the congruence of such challenging developments as the potential destruction of our environment, the toxicity of some resources, and the shortage of others will motivate our society to look in some new and higher quality directions for the joys and satisfactions of life.

One can imagine a new flourishing of mankind's artistic, scientific and athletic talents, given the combination of basic security, fine educational opportunities and experiences, and the emphasis on quality envisaged in this new progressive agenda.

These are the areas in which our restless and competitive energies should be focused, not in warfare with each other, not in the exploitation of the weakest by the strongest, but in the leadership of the strongest in building a new global era worthy of the best of humankind's gifts and talents.

Moderated Comments


There isn't a government in the world that is more authoritarian, more rotten and more corrupt than what we have right here in the United States.

The "progressive" alternative to capitalism is socialism.

On the minimum wage; organized labor, including you Mr. Williams, should be advocating for the minimum wage to be tied directly to the calculations and figures of the United States Department of Labor for what they calculate a living income to be. Simple as that.

"Decent jobs," give me a break... there isn't a single job that needs to be done that could not become a "decent job" with a union contract and the appropriate protections enforced through adequate labor standards and legislation.

FDR's policies were not some kind of gift from the Wall Street coupon clippers; it took a struggle.

The labor movement refuses to release the resources working people need to initiate struggles for justice.

Right now, over two-million Americans go to work in loud, noisy, smoke-filled casinos at poverty wages without any rights under state, federal or tribal labor laws at over 400 casinos spread out across this country in the Indian Gaming Industry under terms of special "Compacts." Not once did you as the president of the USW or any of your lobbyist ever object to these "Compacts." In fact, Mr. Williams, your union financed these politicians who created these "Compacts" which brought these abominable and inhuman conditions into existence.

Right now in the State of Michigan, the "labor" Governor you support has just recently entered into another agreement with one of the most despicable mobsters in the United States to let the Station Casinos "manage" the Gun Lake Casino--- not one whimper of protest from unions.

John Conyers can not be trusted to carry HR 676 forward any more than he could be trusted to bring forward impeachment proceedings against the most crooked, corrupt president and vice-president in American history.

Gus Hall, a leader of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee who was a member of SOAR, pointed out the only thing capitalism breeds is injustice and war.

NEW AlanMaki

Several people contacted me asking, "Ok, Maki, what do you have in mind besides being critical?"

This is a fair question, although I think I have been quite specific.

But, let me be more specific. At our Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party precinct caucus I presented the following resolution which passed unanimously:

Resolution on Bush's Economic Stimulus Plan and Initiative

Whereas George Bush"s "economic stimulus plan and initiative" is based upon 150 billion dollars---tax-payer dollars--- being used to bail out a failing economy which includes subsidies to private industries;

Therefore be it resolved that the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party is for tax-payers owning the industries which tax-payer dollars subsidize in proportion to what they subsidize.

NEW AlanMaki

The following resolution also passed unanimously:

Resolution 0n the St. Paul Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant/Hydro Dam and 2,000 Union Jobs

Whereas Ford Motor Company has stated its intent to close the St. Paul Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant, sell the hydro dam to a foreign corporation, and displace two-thousand workers in the near future without consultation from the workers, the community, or local and state governments;

Whereas this plant, its operations, and the hydro dam have received continued support from every level of government including tax-payer funding, tax-breaks and tax abatements under promises to maintain manufacturing operations and with assurances workers would have job security in St. Paul, Minnesota;

Therefore, be it resolved, the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party is for public ownership being used to save the St. Paul Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant, hydro dam, and two-thousand jobs.


Another concrete example.

At the same precinct caucus referenced above we passed a resolution on the need for a minimum wage that is a real living wage as established by the United States Department of Labor.

Here was my thinking involved in supporting this resolution:

A good union contract is better than any government anti-poverty program.

However, organized labor has a responsibility to wage a real struggle for a minimum wage that is a real living (non-poverty) wage.

Organized labor has yet to free up the resources for such a struggle.

The only way to accomplish this is to fight to have the minimum wage tied directly to what the United States Department of Labor calculates a living (non-poverty) annual income to be.

If an employer requires a job to be done, the worker employed to do that job is entitled to a real living, non-poverty wage.

Let's get real here. Businesses do not hire workers because they want to create jobs in spite of the claims made by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; employers hire workers intending to make a profit because these employers understand something many workers and union leaders don't understand: all wealth is created by labor.

If an employer complains that wages are too high? Let the boss do the work himself.

The primary way to redistribute the wealth in this country is by workers being paid real living (non-poverty) wages.

Unfortunately many union contracts do not even include real living wages; this needs to change.

Working people need to realize we are in a class struggle and unless they stand up and fight back against the big-business bully they are doomed to being beaten down into poverty.