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The Next Congress: Good News, Bad News and Hard Work For Labor


As we move into the holiday season, we're all looking forward to the birth of the new Democratic Congress — and those of us who work for a living, who are union members, who want to be union members, or who are convinced that the success of the labor movement is vital to the progressive movement, are focused on the labor issues that the new Congress will take up — and hopefully pass.

Nancy Pelosi has her "First 100 Hours " agenda, and John Sweeney has labor's agenda. Happily, most of their issues overlap nicely. Raising the minimum wage, dealing with prescription drug costs, making it harder for companies to go bankrupt and shed their pensions, health care benefits and labor agreements, improvements in workplace health and safety protections, improved access to health care and, of course passing the Employee Free Choice Act which will make it easier to organize unions are all issues that are part of the first 100 days — or at least the first several months of the new Congress.

But now the real work begins. As a veteran of a Democratic administration, I can say from experience that the bad news is that working with Democrats is more work than working with Republicans.

The good news is that you can actually make some progress with Democrats. I mean, with Republicans in charge, you know you can't get anything good done. All you have to do is stop bad things from happening, which is generally futile.

The good news here is that, as Nathan Newman notes, this is a much more solidly pro-labor caucus than we've ever seen before. The bad news is that the news is already full of stories about corporate lobbyists writing huge checks to Democrats . This can't be a good thing. I mean, it may be good for individual legislators' bank accounts, but bad for the rest of us. Now we must be wary of all kinds of compromisers, turncoats and those who are always looking over their shoulders while planning for the next election. 

Speaking of which, all is not peaceful even with the Democratic "family." Competing with the labor agenda is pro-free trade "Rubinomics," named after Clinton's long-time Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, and personified by the Hamilton Project .

AFL-CIO leaders, contending Democrats won the midterm elections because of voter concern about job security and stagnant wages, say it's time to set aside the free-trade policies touted by Rubin.

"We need to review the Rubin agenda that's led to millions of lost jobs and declining standard of living for the middle class,'' said United Steelworkers President Leo Girard. “It's an agenda that has been very good for Citigroup and the financial community because they've been able to finance the relocation of jobs and refinance the trade deficits.''

Organized labor has long been at odds with "Rubinomics,'' the phrase coined to describe President Bill Clinton's economic policy, masterminded by Rubin, to promote free trade and reduce the budget deficit. Now, with Democrats regaining control of Congress, such issues may take on new urgency as labor sees a chance to wield greater influence over policy.


Rubin, 68, has called for a new economic direction by balancing the federal government's budget through spending cuts and tax increases, more free-trade agreements, wage insurance for workers dislocated by globalization and restraining personal- injury lawsuits.

AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Rich Trumka has accused them of forgetting about the reasons Democrats were elected: the need to address economic growth,  stagnating wages and living standards of American working families. Machinists spokesman Rick Sloan was more blunt: 

"When the wizards of Wall Street start dictating Democratic policy, the first to be forgotten are the Democratic voters who made these election successes possible,'' said Rick Sloan, a spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. "We get screwed every time these guys grab the handles of power. They forget the need to create jobs. They are much more interested in Chinese growth than Cleveland's growth.''

Of course, Wall St. Democrats aren't the only dissenters from labor's current agenda. From the left we have Labor Research Association (and labor blogger) Jonathan Tasini accusing labor and Pelosi of selling out. A $7.25 an hour minimum wage doesn't even get a family out of poverty. What we need to be doing is challenging corporate power. Democrats shouldn't be afraid to roll back the Bush tax cuts, address the immigration issue by making it easier for them to earn a living at home, legalizing those who are here and making it easier for them to organize unions. And finally, advocate for public financing of elections, the only way you'll disempower corporate control of our legislative process.

What all of this means is that we — progressive activists, bloggers and citizens — will need to go to work — to constantly convince our "friends" about why they were elected and who elected them.

But more important, we have to start thinking about the long view. Take the Employee Free Choice Act that Tula and I have written about here a number of times. As Jonathan Tasini accurately points out, this bill will not become law  during the next two years. It will probably pass out of the House of Representatives, but there's probably no way that Democrats will get the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the House. And even if, by some miracle, that happened, we don't have the votes needed to overcome a Presidential veto. That means we have to focus on getting a 60 vote Democratic majority in the next Senate, and hope there are no conservative Democratic turncoats. And, of course, electing a Democratic President.

The next Congess (and Presidency) is where our focus must lie. It's not too early to start determining the litmus test for candidates that we will support in two years, particularly those Democratic candidates who want to challenge vulnerable Republicans in 2008. Of course, top on that litmus test must be the Employee Free Choice Act. Every conversation we have about threats to the middle class, every blog post we write about working conditions or immigrant abuse or the disintegration of the middles class or poverty in America or health care should mention the Employee Free Choice Act. It needs to become as much a part of the 2008 political debate as immigration was in the last election, or Gay Marriage (ugh!) was in the previous election. We won't be able to utter the words "values" or "family-friendly" without or "jobs" or "wages" or "benefits" without tying them to making it easier for workers to organize unions.

And there needs to be a zero-tolerance policy for any politician of any party whose support wavers.

That being said, there's no reason to limit ourselves to "just" the Employee Free Choice Act. Louisville Courier Journal columnist David Hawpe will be attending a presentation by newly elected Congressman John Yarmuth (who beat Anne Northup) on "expectations for the Democratic majority in Congress." Hawpe is going to suggest that he talk about workplace safety

It's an issue of real importance in any American community, big or small, but it has special significance in a city like Louisville that has so many major assembly lines and distribution facilities.

It's an issue of life-and-death import every day in the coalfields, and Kentucky has them in both ends of the state.

In other words, 'tis the season to hold their feet to the fire. Because if we don't, you know that K St. and the Hamilton Project people will be talking their ears off and buying their votes.  And it doesn't take a lot of work. Go to a few meetings with your Congressperson. Ask some questions. Get a few friends to go with you. Make a few phone calls to their office. One or two phone calls or questions they may ignore. But five or ten starts worrying them.  When I think about Congressional staff answering phone calls, or Congressmen "listening" to their constituents, this verse of Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant always comes back to me:

You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he's really sick and they won't take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both faggots and they won't take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singing a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. They may think it's an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice's Restaurant and talking out. And friends they may thinks it's a movement.

In other words, being a movement takes more than talk. It takes shoe leather. Let's not let this opportunity pass us up.  

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Jordan Barab

Jordan Barab