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A New Workers' Manifesto

12/21/2010 09:30 am 09:30:09 | Updated May 25, 2011

Union and non-union blue-collar workers alike walked into voting booths in 1932 and pulled the lever for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Twenty-eight years later, their sons and daughters -- union and non-union, organized and non-organized -- pulled the lever for JFK. Yet in the 2010 elections just held, while union workers generally pulled the levers of the Democratic candidates, non-union blue-collar workers voted for Republicans -- as they have done fairly regularly since 1980.

This political disconnect between union and non-union workers has now been vexing the Democratic Party and progressives for three decades. A close friend of mine in the Senate affirmed it to me the other day when he said that when he meets with workers who are not organized, they react with much more reserve than the union workers he meets -- even when the two groups have so much else about their lives in common. Democrats need to look at the workers in this country through this prism.

  • Many people were led astray by pundits as to voter intent in 2008, when the common distress over the economy was misinterpreted in terms of what the electorate was really saying with its votes -- or, perhaps better said, not saying.
  • The disappointing 2010 midterm election results and the very low voter turnout by workers affirmed what my Senator friend is concerned about, namely, that Democratic candidates often don't understand and appreciate the differences between the views of organized and non-organized workers.
  • Aligning politically the interests of workers -- all workers -- is one of the most important opportunities for progressive candidates heading into 2012 for one simple reason. By 2012, the economy will inevitably be seen as belonging to Obama and the Democrats, even as the nation continues to dig out from the horrible Bush-Republican 'legacy' -- and if by then the economy still hasn't materially improved, which I think is likely, then Democrats are going to need the strong support of most organized and non-organized workers alike in order to retain/gain seats in Congress and keep the Presidency.

My response to the Senator regarding why this split may exist is fourfold:

  • Perhaps non-organized workers don't feel they've been formally invited to our Party as a bloc unto themselves.
  • While great leaders are now running all of the nation's major unions and these unions' members are enthusiastically engaged behind them, there are, by contrast, no real leaders for non-organized workers to get behind.
  • Perhaps it's because our Democratic incumbents and candidates are usually so warmly supported by organized workers -- both with 'feet on the street' and financial support -- that some of them don't pay enough attention to non-organized workers.
  • We still haven't sufficiently helped make the case to workers for "Why unions?" This despite the fact that workers are almost universally no longer receiving the fair and balanced attention that was common until the early '80s, when first Reagan economics and later unfair globalization began to wreak havoc.

Back in early 2008, David Bonior and I put together a "Labor Manifesto", which later became the foundation for Barack Obama's "I Believe in Unions" speech in Youngstown, Ohio, a speech which thereafter heavily defined the 'worker-part' of his campaign through to the general election.

While in hindsight, our initial Manifesto should have been more obviously inclusive of all workers, starting off with our calling it the "Workers' Manifesto", its motivation was simple: restore through politics in general and the presidential bully pulpit in particular the perspective that corporate America has equal and concurrent responsibility to shareholders, employees, customers, communities and the nation. This is a perspective that served the country extremely well and stood workers in good stead for most of the thirty years following World War II.

I revisit both versions of the Manifesto here in the interest of giving Democrats and progressives a base from which to recalibrate their commitment to workers, and in so doing bring about that much needed political alignment of union and non-union workers.

Stated in the first person, the Manifesto had one overriding proposition, which went as follows: "I believe in the American worker, and I believe in keeping manufacturing jobs here in this country. I believe that our workers and our businesses can compete with any worker and any company anywhere in the world, as long as we have a government that will stand up and demand a level playing field for all."

Later on, in Mr. Obama's Youngstown speech, he sensitively added the following: "I believe in unions because if you look at the history of this country, things we take for granted - the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, overtime, health care benefits, paid leave, child labor laws -- those were union fights. Unions put their shoulder behind the wheel and made life better for working people when they were being taken advantage of. And even if you're not in a union, you're still benefiting from the fact that there's a union out there putting pressure on employers to do the right thing."

What is important to remember is that all of this was written and said in 2008. Given that the U.S. economy today is actually more "jobless" in real unemployment terms than it was in 2008 and that the wages of the employed remain stagnant -- and given last week's passage of the $800 billion-plus tax cut package with its insidious favoritism of the extremely wealthy and the dearth of meaningful job creation over the last two years -- how about the following Workers' Manifesto, which combines the core principles of the 2008 with the realities of today?

  • An abiding commitment to fair wages, including an increase in the minimum wage, and to benefits for the long-term unemployed.
  • Comprehensive labor law reform that will make it easier to: enforce labor standards; rule in favor of workers when management is not negotiating in good faith or is engaging in unfair labor practices; and, through the provisions of a new "Employee Free Choice Act", join the organized labor movement.
  • Preservation, without compromise, of Social Security and Medicare, and protection of pension benefits.
  • Elimination of the "trickle down" tax policies that since 1980 have been rewarding the extremely wealthy at the expense of 90% of America's workers.
  • An abiding commitment to a "National Industrial and Manufacturing Policy" with the medium-term objective of near tripling the percent of workers in the manufacturing sector (from the dismal 9% level it is today).
  • Trade policies and agreements that put American workers first and provide clear and measurable benefits for American workers.

Workers in America -- organized and non-organized -- should not have their wages and benefits attacked, their Social Security benefits and retirement savings put at risk, or their jobs taken away by unfair globalization and trade agreements. Beyond the White House merely saying, as it did on Friday, that Mr. Obama will "work closely with labor leaders in the coming months on important economic issues", let's hope that in the next two years of his term the President (re)embraces these policy-economic-moral commitments and follows through on them with much more concrete action than we saw during his first two years.

No more "listening tours around the Roosevelt Room", please, which is how last Friday's sit-down with labor leaders was described by the Wall Street Journal. Rather, a Workers' Manifesto to which we as Democrats and progressives can and will commit ourselves.

Leo Hindery, Jr. is Chairman of the US Economy/Smart Globalization Initiative at the New America Foundation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Currently an investor in media companies, he is the former CEO of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), Liberty Media and their successor AT&T Broadband. He also serves on the Board of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.