Unions Coming Around, Says Nader

News & Politics

OAKLAND, California -- Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader said Thursday he is starting to chip away at Al Gore's union support at the rank-and-file level.

"I'm sensing a trend among union locals around the country that they're going to increasingly go their independent way and support our candidacy," he said after meeting with 45 labor leaders from 25 different unions at the headquarters of the California Nurses Association, his most important union backer to date.

"Part of it is due to the increasing concern of locals that the issues that are closest to them ... are being ignored by the Democratic Party, which is giving them a pile of rhetoric and turning their back on organized labor, because the Democratic Party leaders believe that organized labor has nowhere to go."

The nation's biggest unions, such as the Teamsters, have endorsed Democratic Party candidate Gore. But many of the labor activists present -- most of whom belong to unions either supporting Gore or withholding endorsements -- said privately they were there because of their disgust with the Democrats' centrist politics.

"There's going to be a phenomenal mobilization for Ralph by organized labor," predicted an optimistic Rosanne DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association (CNA). "People who want to work for the campaign are here, and they're going to try to convince their unions to endorse Ralph."

To win them over, Nader is pushing hard for the repeal of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which he described as a "chokehold" preventing low-wage workers from organizing unions. The Act, which rolled back many of the legislative gains the labor movement made during the Great Depression, erased the Closed Shop and other union organizing tools.

"Under Taft-Hartley it is more difficult in this country to form trade unions in the private sector than in any other Western country," said Nader. "And this is demonstrated by the fact that trade union membership in the private economy has dropped below 10 percent of the workforce -- the lowest in 60 years."

Nader's pro-labor program would have the United States give "six months' notice" of its withdrawal from the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement, to be followed by new trade agreements "to lift standards up from abroad, rather than pull our standards down."

He also supports universal health care and "getting dirty money out of politics," but the cherry on top for America's low-income workers would be a dramatic hike in the minimum wage. Wednesday at Long Beach State University, Nader suggested that $14 might be a reasonable new limit.

"The lack of trade union presence in our economy explains to no small degree why 47 million workers in this country are making less than a living wage," he charged. "And it also demonstrates that without trade unions there is an increasing level of poverty in this state. In 1980, California had a 15 percent child poverty (rate). Twenty years of economic growth later, the figure is 25.2 percent. And it's by far higher than any other Western country."

Nader's proposals -- which also include hiking tax rates, leaving Social Security alone, charging royalties to companies that profit from government-subsidized research and development, expanding paid vacation and childbearing leave, and so on -- would deliberately pull the United States in the direction of the "social-democratic" countries of Western Europe, which he praises in nearly every campaign appearance.

They would also give organized labor its strongest White House supporter in history, but that hasn't prevented most major union organizations from supporting Al Gore way back when he was being challenged by Bill Bradley.

As when other members of the Democratic Party's most-liberal wing have rejected him for Gore, Nader bemoaned those who kowtow to "political expediency."

"They feel obligated by tradition to support the Democratic nominee," he said. "[But] if this thing begins sweeping through the country at the union and local level, we're going to see a real political revolution. Because listen: when it comes down to election day, who gets out to vote? It's not the international unions. It's the local unions."

And, DeMoro said, there's nothing preventing individual members from breaking away from their leadership, unless it is fear of reprisals.

"If they're a staffer for a union person who's supporting Gore, their job might be in trouble," she said, explaining why camera crews couldn't film Nader's behind-closed-doors meeting with the unionists.

Afterward, the energized rank-and-file laughed lustily at Nader's well-worn political jokes, infusing the candidate with a rare optimism.

"Out of California something may be erupting here that will move across the country," he gushed, saying that 13 Michigan locals (including three from the United Auto Workers) are considering endorsing him.

"The other two candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, will never utter the phrase 'repeal Taft-Hartley,'" he said. "They are avoiding the issues because they are beholden to the big business interests that fund their campaigns with hard money, soft money and every conceivable mode of support."

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