THE BLOG

Bernie Filibusters Not Just on the Senate Floor, But On Picket Lines

12/13/2010 03:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last Friday, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made headlines across the world by standing on the Senate floor for eight-and-half hours "filibustering" and denouncing special interests that benefit from tax cuts. It should serve as no surprise to the workers in Bernie's states that he was willing to take such a bold stand. Bernie has been standing on picket lines and in union halls helping workers to organize as elected officials for decades in Vermont.

Senator Bernie Sanders has always used the power of elected office to protect workers during the process of union organizing which often involves illegal firings of union activists. Sanders is known for coming down to the union halls during union elections and urging workers to join a union. Bernie will call up Vermont employers and threaten to shame them if they engage in illegal firings and management intimidation tactics, which often goes unpunished in the United States due to weak labor law.

Bernie's involvement makes a big difference in making it possible to have a strong union presence in Vermont. Labor in turn stands strongly by Bernie.

Thus, Bernie is able to stand on the floor of the Senate denouncing special interests for eight-and-half hours. Bernie doesn't fear special interests as much as other Senators. Workers throughout Vermont know that Bernie is clearly standing on his side because they so often literally see him on physically standing on the side of workers on picket lines through the state of Vermont.

Most Democratic elected officials are reluctant to get involved in union organizing drives in the ways that Bernie Sander does. If they do get involved, it's only symbolic. Few make the repeated, intense efforts that Bernie does to threaten to use the powers of the full powers a Senator does to threaten a company into having a free and fair elections and contract negotiations.

I know this from personal experience in organizing government contractors that worked for Northup Grumman and a number of other contractors for the United States Customs and Immigration Services (UCSIS). In 2008, I was helping organize workers employed at a USCIS Center in California, while another group from the same union was helping organize workers in Vermont. We got very little help from Democratic elected officials in California.

However, Senator Bernie Sanders repeatedly called and wrote the CEOs of these various government contractors whenever reports of worker intimidation emerged. Bernie even showed up at a union hall in Vermont and told workers that if he worked where they did he would vote for a union. As a result of Bernie's persistent help, we successfully won four separate NLRB elections and were able to reach a first contact within four months (a record in first-contract negotiations). Without Bernie's help, I don't think we would have been successful in this drive.

So few Democratic elected officials give similar help to organizing drives or first-contract negotiations. Democratic elected officials often either seem indifferent to these causes or in some causes don't want to be seen as siding with workers. As a result of the failure of Democrats to help unions both legislatively and through putting pressure on big corporations to allow free elections, unions are losing members at an alarming rate. Unions represent for a mere 7% of the private sector workers down from a rate of nearly 40% of the private sector in the 1950s.

It's a self defeating cycle. As a result of the failure of Democrats to help ensure free union elections, Democrats are thinning the ranks of their biggest funder and most loyal constituency -- organized labor.

Republicans on the other side are willing to help the union busting forces that fund their campaign. Just last week, South Carolina Governor-elect Nikki Haley (R-SC) announced that a union buster, Catherine Templeton would head South Carolina's labor agency. Haley said Templeton was hired to specifically fight a union organizing at a large Boeing plant in North Charleston, South Carolina.

South Carolina Governor-elect Haley (R-SC) was quoted as saying "She knows what it takes to take it on and she understands it's going to be a partnership level that we cannot lose. We're going to fight the unions and I needed a partner to help me do it. She's the right person to help me do it."

Republicans make no qualms about their desire to take on organized labor. Perhaps, Democrats should stand by organized labor as vocally as Republican oppose it. Democrats should learn the lesson of health care reform that cutting deals with big corporations does them no good. In the end, the health insurance industry and the Chamber of Commerce spent heavily to defeat Democrats, while only organized labor spent heavily to defend Democrats.

Bernie Sanders is likely to become the top target of big corporations as a result of his high publicity stands against legislation that benefits the rich. Bernie though doesn't have to worry about losing his seat as a result of his filibuster because he has stood so many times with workers in his own states. If Democratic elected officials wish to remain in power, they must use their offices the way Bernie Sanders does to secure a fair and free union election for all.