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Labor Pulls Dems Over The Finish Line


As we're all well aware, the election is over, the returns are in and all is well in the world (well, except for the president and the other guy ahead of Nancy Pelosi in the presidential line of succession.) Another thing that's once again well in the world is the return to supremacy of labor's get out the vote effort, as well as labor's influence over the outcome of the election. For the first time in the last couple of elections, labor's get-out-the-vote effort apparently bested Karl Roves GOTV. According to post –election polling,

While nonunion voters provided a two-point margin of victory for Democratic candidates, union households made it a five-point difference—turning a modest victory into a wave. Union households voted 74 percent to 26 percent for Democratic candidates…. In key battleground Senate races, union members voted 73 percent to 27 percent for Democrats.

Not only that, but although union members make up only 12% of the working population, they comprised one in four voters. In fact, in some areas, the entire winning Democratic margin came from the labor vote, as reflected in at least three of the senate races in which the winning Democrat lost the Republican non-union vote. Labor focused particularly on so-called "drop-off" voters, those who voted in the 2004 Presidential election, but not in the 2002 congressional vote. The AFL-CIO reached out to 496,000 drop-off voters in Ohio alone. Union leaders boasted that union members accounted for 5.6 million of 6.8 million-vote margin in favor of Democrats over Republicans in the House races.

And what were all of these union voters so concerned about? Well, like the rest of America, the deteriorating war in Iraq and the culture of corruption led the list. But according to pollster Geoff Garin, it's also still the economy —  raising the minimum wage, protecting workers’ wages and benefits following corporate bankruptcies, requiring Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices, reforming trade agreements to protect workers' rights,and expanding health coverage:

Among the total electorate, 39 percent of voters said the economy was an extremely important issue for them in this election. These voters broke solidly for the Democrats—voting for a Democratic candidate in House races by a margin of 59 percent to 39 percent.

And despite President Bush's complaint following the election that the American people just didn't understand how well the economy was doing, it turns out that the American people knew what they knew: the rich were getting richer while the middle class was being left behind, they weren't participating in the good fortunes of the stock market, and although the administration bragged about low jobless number immediately preceding the election, people were fully aware that most new jobs have been Wal-martized:

President Bush and many Republicans expected the economy to be a strong issue for the GOP this year. Many of the so-called pundits agreed with them—reasoning that the improvement in the stock market and the relatively low unemployment rate would drive voters to the Republican column. Of course, working Americans who experience the reality of economic life today had a different point of view—and acted upon it in the election.


Polling conducted before the election shows the employment rate is not a good measure of Americans’ real confidence in the economy. A significant majority believe (rightly so) that the new jobs we are added to the economy are not as good as the jobs we have lost, both in terms of pay and benefit. In polling conducted for the AFL-CIO, most Americans say that even if you get a good education and are willing to work hard, it is hard to find a job in today’s economy that is both secure and good paying.

And what do union members expect to happen now? Plenty. Change To Win ran a full page ad in the New York Times last Sunday that stated "We're Working Hard To Achieve The American Dream: We Expect Congress To Do Its Part." First and foremost is raising the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour after a decade of being stuck at $5.15. Voters in five states — Arizona, Colorado , Missouri , Montana, Nevada and Ohio approved measures that raise state minimum wage levels by $1 to $1.70 an hour and indexed the minimum wage to inflation. Other issues include improving workplace health and safety, especially mine safety, putting a brake on outsourcing jobs overseas, negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for better drug prices and extending health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans. 

Trade will also be an issue where labor hopes to make progress. And the prospects look good according to Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson :

Looking at the Democrats who picked up formerly Republican House seats, Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch tallies 27 who defeated (or replaced resigning) free-trade Republicans and who campaigned against the kind of trade deals that Congress has ratified. The fair-trade 27 insist instead on deals that stress labor rights and environmental standards. In North Carolina, Democrat Heath Shuler — ostensibly one of the new conservative Democrats — attacked his opponent, Republican Charles Taylor, for backing off his commitment to vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement. "It's not right when Congress passes trade bills that send our jobs overseas," said one Shuler ad.

In the incoming Senate delegation, the contrast is even sharper. The Democratic pickups — Missouri's Claire McCaskill, Montana's Jon Tester, Ohio's Sherrod Brown, Pennsylvania's Bob Casey, Rhode Island's Sheldon Whitehouse and Virginia's James Webb — all unseated free-trade incumbents with campaigns that stressed the need to pay far greater attention to the downward leveling that globalization entails. Tester ran ads attacking trade agreements for putting "our jobs and the viability of family farms and ranches across Montana in jeopardy." Webb's Web site states, "We must reexamine our tax and trade policies and reinstitute notions of fairness."

 Even the Wall St. Journal predicts labor victories on trade issues.

Trade watchers on both sides of the issue say President Bush will have a tough time winning a free hand from Congress to negotiate trade accords. The president's "fast track" authority — under which Congress has to vote up or down on trade agreements, forgoing amendments — expires in July, and a Democrat-led House is less likely to grant him such sweeping powers again.

Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, told reporters yesterday that the coming showdown over Mr. Bush's fast-track authority is "the first battle that we're going to win."

But more than anything, what all of this means is that if Democrats want to stabilize and expand their majorities (as well winning the presidency in two years) they should be putting 200% of their effort into making it easier for workers to organize.The first priority would be to pass the Employee Free Choice act which calls for card-check recognition instead of traditional "secret ballot" election. Nathan Newman notes that even so-called conservative, Blue Dog Democrats are strongly supporting raising the minimum wage and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Let me emphasize how significant this is that the most conservative faction of the Democrats supports labor reform. In the past, there was always a significant faction of Democrats opposing labor law reform. The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which gutted labor rights in this country, was passed over Truman's veto because a majority of Democrats in the Senate voted for it.

The fact that there is NO signficant anti-labor faction left in the Democratic party is massive change in American politics. Yes, there will be differences within the party over some substantive labor issues. Some Democrats are still wedded to an ideological free trade agenda, but the fact that all agree on the need to protect and expand the basic right of workers to form unions is major sea change.

Of course, the Republicans right about now are suddenly remembering the virtues of the filibuster and will undoubtedly try to block Democratic effort the pass the bill in order to save President Bush the indignity of a veto.

But who knows? Maybe enough Republicans and President Bush have heard the message. Working people are demanding respect, stability and an economy that works for everyone. And they're voting that way too.

In real life, Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space

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Jordan Barab

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