Labor's Democrat Problem
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The last few days, I've had that queasy feeling I get when I feel more repelled by so-called "liberals" than conservatives. The occasion: the wringing of hands and finger wagging at the local police union that has been picketing the site of the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
The story in brief: The police have been without a contract for two years. The mayor, Democrat Thomas Menino, is offering a contract that the police officers don't like. So far as I can tell, here is what the police have done: They've made some noise and made people uncomfortable. They've picketed at the site -- oh, lord, they've exercised their First Amendment right by demonstrating -- and other unionized workers have refused to cross the picket line, delaying work.
And, by exercising their rights, the police union and its members have come under attack -- and the chattering classes and opinion makers have already started framing this as a test for John Kerry. One "liberal" columnist in The Boston Globe (which -- no surprise as a subsidiary of The New York Times -- has horrible labor relations), using the worst labor stereotypes she could conjure up, calls for Kerry to back the mayor up and stand up to the unions. This, she reasons, would show that Kerry is a real man, independent, not beholden to "old labor," and able to stand up to "Jacques Chirac, Yasser Arafat or Al Qaeda."
Others are calling for Kerry to give us a Clintonian Sister Souljah moment. You remember when, in 1992, candidate Clinton denounced Sister Souljah for a racist remark, thereby -- as political lore tells us -- solidifying himself in the minds of moderate voters as a guy who wouldn't just cater to blacks, one of the Democratic party's "special interests." I suppose that stance later gave Clinton the courage to find common cause with Republicans in "reforming" welfare, leading to more childhood poverty.
So, let's start by asking: Would you be willing to work without a contract for two years? The cops do not have the right to strike; it's written in the law as a prohibition. (Well, the truth is that few people really have the effective right to strike in America; a guy named Ronald Reagan took care of that). So, instead, the police are using what little leverage they have, a once-every-four-years convention, to apply some pressure. Is there no shame among politicians who, for political gain, run to the side of policemen when they save lives, from collapsing towers in New York City to the prosaic neighborhood home, yet will deny them a fair living or at least chastise them when they exercise their constitutional right to free speech?
I guess so-called "liberals" have become so bullied in John Aschcroft's America that they, too, want to make it un-American to demonstrate. Indeed, one of the insidious attacks on workers over the past several decades has been the use of the judiciary to take away the basic rights of protest. Workers can't picket for more than five minutes before a judge issues an injunction limiting the number of people who can stand on a picket line and exercise their constitutional right to speak out. A judge in Boston has ruled that only 18 police officers or supporters can picket at the same time, and he has dispatched armed marshals to enforce the order.
The very framing of the current controversy has been troubling, using the code words of "big labor" and "special interests." At a time when, on the one hand, unions represent 12 per cent of the workforce (just nine per cent in the private sector) and, on the other hand, corporations and their lavishly paid executives are running roughshod over most Americans, it's laughable to talk about "big labor." The "special interest" moniker is deceitful, too; its message is that labor's "special interest" is no better than the corporate "special interest;" that both forces are equal in that they are out for something that benefits them but not you. That has been a crock (all these "liberals" would be working in sweatshops and making a pittance if it weren't for labor's particular special interest in raising living standards in America) but the "special interest" label has stuck to labor. Using such language encourages a lie about the forces at play in America, and who is shaping the economic disaster we end up grappling with at our kitchen table.
The truth is we don't need a president who can bully labor. We just buried one who ushered in a horrendous era of unabashed union-busting and corporate abuse of workers who try to unionize. My guess is that the same so-called "liberal" columnists who are telling the police union to knock it off also write passionately about the decline in wages, the growing despair because of unemployment, the offshoring of jobs and the health care crisis.
Wake up. All those ills I've mentioned, and far more are than I care to list, are directly a result of union busting and the lack of the real right to unionize and collectively bargain in America -- the very rights the police union is fighting to protect, and that liberals too often undermine with their bizarre carping, or -- just as bad -- silence when someone raises the specter of "big labor." What we need is a president who will bully corporations, not workers. And, by the way, had we decided to join Jacques Chirac rather than "stand up" to him, thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of American soldiers would still be alive -- Chirac, after all, was right.
There is plenty to critique about the labor movement; I've spent the last 20 years doing so, to the dismay of some in labor. But the idea that any worker should just sit still and shut up is precisely what has gotten us into the economic pickle we're in.
Yes, this is a test for John Kerry. The Democratic Party wags are worried about the message the protesting police will send to the rest of America. If his campaign is truly about a "Real Deal" for Americans, he could start right here by telling the mayor to negotiate in good faith with the union, and call off the Democratic party hacks who want Kerry to show his political manhood at the expense of workers.
Jonathan Tasini is president of the Economic Future Group and writes his "Working In America" columns for TomPaine.com on an occasional basis.