Nathan Newman

Failing to rein in an activist right-wing Court led to 70 years of Jim Crow--Dems can't make the same mistake if they win in November

When Reconstruction was established after the Civil War, Congressional leaders knew the Supreme Court was hostile to their efforts – but they failed to take action to rein in Court power.

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The conventional wisdom is wrong--today's Democrats are more united in support of organized labor than the New Deal Dems

False nostalgia is the enemy of sober strategic thinking. With the labor movement under assault from the Trump administration and a Supreme Court twisting the law to undermine unions, it’s become conventional wisdom in some quarters that the fault lies in the disappearance of Democrats of the New Deal variety, the “New Deal liberals [who] did not hesitate to regulate the labor market,” as writer and New America co-founder Michael Lind has argued, contrasting it with the supposed failure of modern Democrats.

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Even in the middle of a pandemic, Republicans continue to take hostages to advance their agenda

Should Democratic leaders have gotten more in the massive coronavirus relief bill that Congress passed last week?

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Thirty years of sophisticated attacks on runaway corporate power show that Elizabeth Warren would be a radical president

Capitalism dumps its financial dead in corporate bankruptcy courts–-and Elizabeth Warren knows where the bodies are buried.

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A Victory for Progressive Values

Let's be clear -- it wasn't just a good night for Democrats. It was a good night for progressives, and no media spin that these new elected officials are "conservatives" changes who they are. The media is always marvelling that "new" Democrats are so much more conservative than "traditional" liberal Democrats of the past -- which would surprise all the folks firehosed in the streets of the South by many Democrats of a generation ago.

There are no doubt some conservatives among the new Democrats elected but as Rick Perlstein, Ezra Klein and Chris Bowers note, many were progressive and Netroots supported and almost all were tough on core economic justice issues.

Let's remember -- those massive Democratic majorities of a generation ago were fake. In 1981, Ronald Reagan was able to control the agenda in Congress because 67 Boll Weevil Democrats essentially caucused with the GOP. In 1993, the Democrats had a "majority" of 258 but Clinton was only able to pass his initial budget by one vote, so he had a de facto majority of 218 votes. I actually am more confident in the present 228-230 Dem majority we are getting this round to support progressive initiatives than those fake-larger majorities of the past.

And the ideological meaning of this election is nowhere clearer than in the state initiatives passed across the country. The obvious examples are passage of minimum wage initiatives in every state where they were proposed, passage of stem cell funding in Missouri, passage of ethics reforms in Montana, approval of early education funding in Arizona, a prescription drug program for the uninsured in Oregon, and a program for alternative energy reform in Washington State (the last one teetering on passage).

Add in the rejection of the rightwing ideological agenda -- while bans on gay marriage were passed, voters said No on the abortion ban in South Dakota and defeated parental notification in California, Ohio and Oregon. Voters rejected repeal of the state estate tax in Washington. The tax revolt died this year as across the country "Taxpayer Bill of Rights" -- which would have put a meat axe to state budgets -- were defeated at the polls or blocked earlier in the petition gathering process. While "eminent domain" was restricted in a number of states, the attempt by the rightwing to hitch those bills to a radical theory of "regulatory takings" was defeated in California, Washington and Idaho -- with only Arizona approving this deceptive rightwing gambit.

The signs of ideological collapse on the right are relatively clear as different coalition partners fight with each other -- and those fights between corporate interests, libertarian small government types and religious zealots are only likely to increase without as much access to power and the budget to bind their differences over with money.

So celebrate -- this was not a partisan victory but a real victory for progressive values across the country. There's still lots of work to be done, but it's a great first step.

The Brilliance of Labor

Admit it. Many of you think labor unions are dinosaurs, lumbering beasts with pea-sized brains stumbling along waiting for extinction in a world passing them by. God knows, union leaders have done stupid things at times, but what strikes me is the sustained innovation and intelligence by unions over the last decade or so, barely noticed by the media or even fellow progressive activists.

So on this Labor Day, this is my celebration not of the justice of the labor cause, but of the brilliance of those fighting and often winning against long odds in the modern economy.

What's Been Won: Just surviving in the fact of political and corporate assaults by a rightwing that wants to kill off labor is an underestimated victory. I remember in the early 90s when talk of the death of the labor movement started and many analysts confidently predicted that union workers would make up less than 5% of the workforce. If you look at this table, labor has seen some steady erosion in the percentage of works organized since the early 90s -- although even that stabilized a bit last year -- but the actual number of workers unionized has largely stabilized around 16 million members in the last decade.

With total annual budgets from dues of $5-6 billion per year and with hundreds of billions od dollars in union-connected pension and health funds, unions remain the only institution that combines more resources that pretty much all other progressive groups combined with a mass membership. Which is why they have faced bad laws, hostile courts, and anti-union political and corporate attacks-- and their holding onto to nearly 16 million members is a testament to the innovative tactics and strategies they have developed over the years.

And what were those strategies?

Card Check to Replace a Hostile NLRB: As federal labor law and the National Labor Relations Board largely abandoned protecting workers, leaading to over 20,000 workers being fired each year for trying to organize unions, labor leaders realized in the last decades that they needed to emphasize new ways to strengthen the freedom of workers to form unions without depending on the NLRB. The tool was pressuring companies to agree to have independent groups - church leaders or private arbitration groups - measure whether a majority of workers had requested having a union brought into the workplace. (See these resources at American Rights At Work for more on how card check works).

The results have been dramatic. In an early signature campaign reviving the fortunes of the union movement, janitors began organizing around the country, largely using card check to win. In Los Angeles, for example, a union local where once 5000 workers were organized collapsed down to just 1800 members by the mid-0-s. But with the support of community allies, they used dramatic street protests to pressure janitorial companies to recognize the union and raise wages and benefits in the industry. Now, over 25,000 building service workers are organized in California alone. Similarly, hotel unions in Las Vegas would use card check to expand a local to over 50,000 members in that city alone.

And in the high-tech world, traditional telephone-based unions used card check to make inroads into new industries like cell phones. The Communication Workers of America has organized over 39,000 cell phone workers at Cingular Wireless, many of them workers in the US South. After initial resistance, this campaign has even forged a partnership with SBC (now AT&T) that has helped workers and management pursue win-win gains in the workplace, rather than the hostility bred of constant union busting and outsourcing in so many industries.

Corporate Campaigns: Beyond traditional "street heat", unions have begun wielding economic resources they control, such as union pension funds, as part of the tools to pressure companies to agree to card check agreements. William Greider in this Nation article describes many of the tactics used by labor, from proxy fights to shareholder lawsuits, to put pressure on management, but one of my favorite descriptions of this work is by an anti-union consultant who explains to companies in this piece what they face. The author describes the combination of boycotts, pension actions and other publicity actions as a coordinated strategy that brilliantly turns former financial allies against corporate management:

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