Economy

Union Ramps Up Massive Campaign to Keep Obama's Feet to the Fire

The SEIU says it's making a big push and committing huge resources to work for the passage of key progressive measures to aid working families.

This week, SEIU, one of the most aggressive -- and progressive -- labor unions in the country, announced the launch of what Anna Burger, the organization's international treasurer-secretary, promised to be "the greatest grassroots accountability campaign that had ever been seen in America." In a press call, Burger promised that the organization would invest a massive 30 percent of its annual budget for the "Change That Works" campaign, money she said would be used to "[make] sure that elected officials live up to their promises to working families."

The union reportedly spent $80 million during the election and claims that its members knocked on 3.5 million doors and placed over 16 million calls to sway voters to back pro-labor candidates during the election. According to a press release, "More than 3,000 SEIU members, staff and local leaders voluntarily took time off the job to work full time on the 2008 election cycle."

Now they're trying to make sure that the investment of time and resources was worth it. SEIU President Andy Stern said, "After 25 years of market worshipping, deregulating, privatizing, trickle-down economics, American workers have ended up working more, earning less; they've seen the middle class erode and the gap between the rich and the rest of the population grow larger every day.

"Winning an election only provides an opportunity for change," Stern said and promised that the campaign would be focused on "organizing, mobilizing and getting the involvement of people in communities in every part of our country."

The union's agenda is both simple and substantive. The campaign -- described by Stern as the largest legislative plan of any single organization in recent history -- has three primary goals:

  • The passage of a significant economic-recovery program, with infrastructure investments and aid to states and municipalities whose revenues have been decimated by the economic crunch.
  • Passage of a universal health care bill that conforms to the broad set of principles for reform SEIU laid out last year.
  • Passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it harder for employers to intimidate -- or fire -- workers trying to organize a union.

All of these initiatives echo calls heard from the broader progressive movement for some time.

State and local governments have seen revenues from real estate taxes, as well as other sources of income, plummet just when the services they provide are needed most. Economists also warn that deep cuts to local governments' payrolls will mean more unemployment, more foreclosures and a further decline in consumer spending -- exactly the things that must be avoided as the private sector sheds jobs at an alarming rate.

A Gallup poll released Thursday found that a majority of Americans -- by a 53-36 margin -- want such a package to be passed in the first days of the Obama presidency.

A number of polls show that they want Washington to address the health care crisis as well. And the link between health care reform and the economic recovery is becoming increasingly clear. For example, a Harvard University study found that health crises contribute to half of all home foreclosures and may put as many as 1.5 million Americans at risk of losing their homes each year.

SEIU officials also point to an analysis released in November by the New America Foundation predicting that rising health care premiums will continue to outpace wage gains, which will result in a situation in which "Americans will continue to pay more for less-generous health coverage, and fewer employers will offer health insurance to their workers." The union also points to a Health Affairs study which found that, absent changes to the health care system, the number of uninsured Americans will rise to 56 million -- about 1 in 6 -- by 2013.

But the cornerstone of labor's agenda is the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would smooth the way for workers to join a union if they desire to do so. Studies show that during an average unionization drive, 25 percent of employers fire workers, and more than 9 in 10 employees are required to attend one-on-one meetings with supervisors in which they're told that the sky will fall if they vote to unionize.

There's a substantial body of research that shows a clear correlation between falling unionization rates, stagnating wages and increases in inequality and poverty. That's true in all countries; data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development -- the "rich countries' club" -- shows that "countries with high levels of union density or collective bargaining coverage are much more equal than countries with low union density, but perform no worse in terms of creating jobs."

Of course, all of these progressive reforms will face stiff opposition from the corporate Right. To counter that, SEIU has opened up a rapid response "war room," will partner with other organizations to fund a major ad campaign and promises to commit 1,000 full-time staff members in dozens of states across the country to organize the effort to keep elected officials' feet to the fire.

"SEIU members have created one of the largest and most effective political programs in the country," Stern said this week.

We'll soon see if that organization can flex enough muscle to overcome corporate America's inevitable push-back.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.