Labor Advocate Online

Political Participation and the Union Member
by Steven J. Gulitti
with side-by-side commentary by Bill Onasch

We thank Brother Gulitti, who is a member of Cement and Concrete Workers Local 20 in New York City, for this submission below in the left-hand column. Our commentary, ironically perhaps, appears on the right.

When was the last time you voted for President? How about for state senator, mayor or city councilman? My father was an active union man for over 35 years yet he rarely if ever voted in a political election. He felt that his one vote was meaningless. Union members have only to look at the last presidential election to see just how much a small number of votes can be worth as well as the cost being paid today by working families who decided not to participate on November 7th 2000.

It is being repeated again and again that: "This is the most important election in our lifetime". For anyone who wasn’t old enough to vote for Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 that is probably true. Right now approximately 45% of the likely voters are registered Republicans vs. approximately 45% Democrat. It is being predicted that the remaining 10% of the undecided independent voters may determine the election by influencing the election results in ten "swing states". Unlike other elections, Presidential elections are determined by the number of electoral votes received not by the absolute number of votes a candidate receives nationwide. The number of electoral votes varies by state depending on population. In a presidential election the Constitution requires that all of the electoral votes in a given state go to the candidate who wins the largest number of votes within that state. If you still think your vote doesn’t matter, remember that in 2000 Al Gore won the largest number of votes nationwide but the Supreme Court decided that George Bush won the largest number of votes needed to win the State of Florida so he got all of those electoral votes and with it the election. When you look at poll results they usually make the distinction between eligible voters, citizens 18 years of age or older, and likely voters, those eligible voters who will register and actually vote. If you are a registered voter you must become a likely voter and vote. The more working Americans that vote for pro-labor candidates the greater the chances of their being elected and the less important is the independent "swing voter". If you are not currently registered to vote you must register A.S.A.P. Your vote could determine the election.

There is another important aspect to the vote. It is in the margin of victory that a candidate receives. When pro-labor candidates win with large margins of victory it creates a mandate for those newly elected officials to propose and push for legislation favorable to working families. A mandate is defined as: "an authorization to act given to an elected official as a result of an election". The larger the mandate the more power and influence pro-labor office holders have against the elected anti-labor opposition not only with regard to being part of a legislative majority but also because our adversaries don’t want to endanger their own reelection by appearing to oppose popularly backed legislation. When anti-labor officeholders know they lack an effective mandate they are unable to oppose or overturn pro-worker public policy and are left with taking a position that "Republicans can better manage government". It is difficult for a pro-labor president to champion health care reform or legislation favoring union organizing efforts if he only wins by a few percentage points. The same is true for pro-labor candidates at any level. The bigger the margin of victory the more "juice" our elected allies have in furthering our best interests. Large margins of victory = mandates = undeniable public demand for political change. Franklin Roosevelt won the 1932 election with a whopping 472 electoral votes to Herbert Hoover’s 59. The result was the most important pro-labor legislation in our nation’s history, the New Deal. The very spirit as well as the substance of that landmark legislation is what the present Administration would love to dismantle. If you think your vote doesn’t matter, brothers and sisters you had better think again.

Can the American worker afford another four years of Bush/Cheney? Lets look at just what this Administration has done for us over the past four years:

The most anti-union Administration since Ronald Regan and the first since Herbert Hoover not to meet with the leadership of the AFL-CIO. According to Professor Richard Freeman of Harvard, 42 million Americans would like to join a union where they work but are unable to due to employer abuses of existing labor laws. Illegal firings of pro-union workers take place in 25% of all union certification campaigns. The Administration is indifferent to the fact that Americans are being denied their legal rights in voting for union representation.

George W. Bush is the first President since the Great Depression to preside over a net loss of jobs in the economy, 1.1 million as of the last official count. The recent addition of 1.5 million jobs to the economy leaves a lot to be desired. More than one source has pointed out that on average these new jobs pay $8,500.00 / year less than those eliminated. According to Stephan Roach, Chief Economist at Morgan Stanley, roughly 80% of the 1.5 million newly created jobs are low paying. One third of the newly created jobs have gone to those 60 years of age or older, sad commentary on the situation facing older workers in today’s America. Moreover, 4.4 million workers have dropped out of the labor force. These individuals are not counted as unemployed, even though they would like a decent job, due to the fact that they are no longer collecting unemployment or actively looking for work.

Senior economists from the Rand Corporation have concluded that the Administration’s desire to open the borders to large numbers of immigrant "guest workers" will definitely have a negative effect on the earnings and job prospects of American citizens. On January 6th The News Hour (PBS) reported that in 2003 six million immigrant workers from South and Central America remitted some 30 billion dollars in earnings back to their home countries. That is 30 billion dollars worth of income that was not earned by Americans and spent here even though businesses of all sizes and sectors benefited. What would 30 billion dollars spent here done for jobs and the growth of the American economy?

This Administration is more favorably disposed to the rich and to business interests than any other administration since the Great Depression. Wages are taxed at twice the rate of investment dividends. The President loves to crow about the importance of his tax cuts because it "lets you keep more of your own money". However, Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton points out that 42% of the 2001 tax cut went to the top 1% of the American people while the 2003 tax cut gave that same 1% approximately 30% of the rewards. Meanwhile the average actual tax break for families in the middle of the income distribution was $469.00. A study on globalization published in February 2004 by the International Labor Organization (U.N.) pointed out that the amount of wealth going to the top 1% of American society is in relative terms now as large as it was in the 1920s. Analyzing statistics from the BLS, Edward Wolff of NYU concludes that we now have the most lopsided distribution of profits since WWII. Despite the highest levels of profit in forty years, labors share of the pie is shrinking. He states: "Labor is a forgotten part of the economy". When adjusted for inflation wages have actually declined over the past year. Are you still spending your tax cut?

Government spending is out of control and for reasons that do little to benefit the working American. The conservative Heritage Foundation shows that growth in Federal spending is at 9% per year. At this rate the Administration is spending twice as much money as the Johnson Administration spent in the 1960s and one and a half more than the Clinton Administration. We have gone from a surplus to the largest deficit in absolute terms in the history of the country. According to the General Accounting Office, the oversight arm of the Congress, at the rate Bush is running up the deficit we would have to double Federal taxes or cut government programs by 50% to get back to a zero deficit. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has proposed reducing the amount of money paid out to future social security recipients and extending the age at which the American worker can begin to collect those benefits.

Healthcare and Prescription Drugs. A recent study by the Commonwealth Fund shows that Americans spend approximately 6% more for health care, soon to be 10%, than do those in other developed nations yet the healthcare provided is generally inferior. In spite of spending more than do other developed nations Americans actually receive less for their money in terms of care provided. There are fewer doctors, hospital beds and days in hospital per 1000 people in this country than in comparable developed nations. On average American doctors and hospitals charge more for the same procedures than are charged in comparable developed nations. You might find it ironic, but people in France smoke more, drink more and have a diet with a higher fat content than Americans, yet they live longer due to among other factors, an excellent national health system. This Administration opposes allowing Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada online even though those same drugs are cheaper by 66%. We were told that Medicare reform would cost $400 Billion dollars but after the law went into effect the General Accounting Office determined the cost would be more like $530 Billion.

America’s image in the world and our relations with our most important allies has never been lower than it is now, not even at the height of the Vietnam War. It is next to impossible to find a nation in the world where the majority of the average citizens register a favorable view of the United States when answering opinion polls addressing either our foreign policy or domestic social policy. While the world is definitely better without Saddam Hussein it is debatable as to whether or not we are safer as a result here at home. One could reasonably assume that we have created more enemies in the region than had previously existed and that our actions have jeopardized the governments of those countries upon which we very critically depend on for oil. The rapid and alarming decline in world opinion towards the United States, due mainly to the way in which this Administration conducts its foreign policy, should be of concern to every working American. It is not the war that is wrong but the reckless, if not fraudulent way in which this Administration lead us to war. The impact on working families promises to be enormous and multigenerational. It is the sons and daughters of the working families and not those of the privileged in our society that are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the working families of America that will go without adequate funding for health care, education and a sound social security system. Those Americans at the upper levels of or society have not had to make any sacrifices with regard to the war effort. In fact they have been the beneficiaries of very generous tax breaks. This is the first time in our history that we have enacted tax breaks during a war.

One book after another, one high profile commission after another has pointed out the fallacy and the contrived logic of this Administration’s rationale for the war in Iraq. Yet like clockwork George Bush or Dick Cheney appear on television the next day repeating the same old tired and worn out rationale for a war that seems increasingly impossible to justify in terms of its contributing to either defeating terrorism or securing the safety of the American homeland. It is almost comical, but when questioned in opinion polls people in Europe and Asia name George Bush as the most dangerous man in the world today. In the first Gulf War in 1991 we employed sound and intelligent diplomacy putting together a coalition that included all of our major allies either in terms of military manpower or financial backing whereby the cost to the American people was 10% of the total. Today we have a coalition of largely second and third-rate nations, most of which have made manpower commitments of a few hundred troops, nations many of which are themselves recipients of U.S. foreign aid dollars and thus in no position to provide serious financial support for military operations or reconstruction efforts. The result is that the American people will pay for 90% of the cost of the war, which as of January 2004 was 127 billion dollars and is estimated to cost the U.S. 87 billion in 2004. If we had spent this much money in Afghanistan we could have probably captured Bin Laden many times over.

You think this Administration isn’t a problem, think again. You think working Americans can afford four more years of Bush / Cheney, brothers and sisters you had better think again.

What Is At Stake On November 2, 2004

The continued existence of the union movement. In the middle of the 1950s organized labor made up 35% of the workforce. Today 16 million union workers account for 13% of the workforce. When you listen to business leaders, political conservatives and the far right press they constantly claim that unions are "out of touch with the American worker" and as such are obsolete and irrelevant in modern society. As noted above, 42 million Americans now want to belong to a union but are unable to due to employer efforts that effectively undermine existing laws regulating union organizing and elections. In an economy of 131.1 million payroll jobs, adding 42 million new union members to the existing 16 million unionized would put the percentage of unionized workers at 44% of the workforce, a percentage higher than the peak levels of the mid 1950s. Senator Ted Kennedy along with John Kerry have sponsored a bill, The Employee Free Choice Act, which would simplify the certification process to the point that a union would be certified to represent workers based on having a majority of the workers sign union representation cards. The Act would also increase penalties for those employers who attempt to harass and intimidate workers interested in joining a union. The Act would eliminate the election process that employers have figured out how to subvert. Why do so many people once again want to belong to a union, because for all the headlines about the boom of the 1990s very little in the way of material well being or economic security found its way into working households.

National Health Care and Social Security. It goes without saying that the health care and Social Security system need to be reformed so as to provide meaningful protection and benefit to the average family. In debating health care, opponents of reform constantly alarm the public with stories of "creeping socialism" and threats to the "American way of free choice. Let me point out that all of the service men and women of our NATO allies that are serving with us in Afghanistan and who stood shoulder to shoulder with America against the Soviet Union come from countries with superior national health care and retirement systems. Why is it okay for our allies to have the benefits that we are denied in this country? National health care and sound old age retirement are a necessity not a luxury or a "dangerous socialist experiment".

Supreme Court Vacancies and National Labor Relations Board Vacancies. Over the next five years three Supreme Court justices will retire. Likewise there will be several vacancies opening up on the NLRB. Given the importance of the decisions made on the Court and NLRB can union members risk having these vacancies filled by Bush / Cheney appointees?

Restoration of Americas role and image as the world’s most important democracy. Radical Islam is the new communism, the new threat to democratic free market societies. We cannot be successful in defeating this new threat acting as an isolated nation that conducts a foreign policy that alienates our traditional allies at the same time as it rejects utilizing international organizations that exist to deal with world problems. We don’t have the manpower or the financial wherewithal to fight and defeat Islamic fundamentalism alone.

Every union brother and sister owes it to himself, his family and the union movement to participate in the political process. Ralph Nader calculates that 100 million eligible voters will not vote in November. Less than half of those eligible to vote turn out for presidential elections. Is it any wonder why a narrow group of business and wealthy interests dominate in this society? You can bet your last dollar that they will all be voting this November.

If you are not registered to vote you can do so online via www.unionvoice.org/laborers, www.peoplepower@aflcio.org or by contacting the New York City Central Labor Council. See to it that your family members and friends also register and vote. There is another important form of political participation and that is through the Laborers Action Network. Go to www.liuna.org and then click on "take action". The L.A.N. provides you with form letters to e-mail to your Senator or Congressmen along with their names and e-mail addresses. It creates letters that address any and every issue important to union members. You can also add your own thought to the form letter. Politicians don’t read every letter they receive but their staffs definitely let them know when they get a large number of letters on a specific topic.

Brothers and sisters don’t be thrown off course by the politics of mass distraction. Lacking anything meaningful to talk about, the Bush Administration recently attempted to make an issue of same sex marriage. They have gone so far as to suggest that we need to amend the Constitution even though they could not put together enough Republican Senators let alone any sympathetic Democratic Senators to even come close to an amendment. Intelligent lawmakers on both sides of the aisle know the American people have more important concerns. The Pew Research Center recently showed that as an issue, same sex marriage ranks 23 out of 24 on issues that matter to Americans. Likewise, President Bush dismisses John Edwards’ talk of "Two Americas" as an attempt at "class warfare". Given the present Administration’s pitiful and pathetic record on issues of importance to working families is it any wonder George Bush and Dick Cheney would want to avoid discussing the growing socio-economic gulf in this society. God forbid George Bush ever address what kind of public policy might help the union movement let alone the American worker. Today the American worker is the forgotten American, the taken for granted American at best.

On the battlefield and in sports there is an old saying: "There is no substitute for victory".

For the union member there is "No substitute for political participation". In the ongoing struggle to improve the lives of working families your ballot is your bullet. Use it well. The time is now. There is no halfway house for the union member. It is your duty to vote and participate politically in every election.

Fraternally,

Steven J. Gulitti
Cement and Concrete Workers Local 20
New York City, N.Y.

 

Brother Gulitti has written as good a case as I have seen for labor supporting Kerry. It is good to see worker activists seriously approaching politics and developing impressive communication skills in the process–even if in the end I can’t agree them.

Of course, the case against the Bush administration doesn’t require much deep analysis. Pretty much from day one the number two vote-getter in the last election demonstrated hostility and contempt toward organized labor. You could almost hear a gleeful taunt of "bring ‘em on!" when labor’s leaders murmured their first tentative protests.

But exposing the dangers of the Bush White House is less than half the case Brother Gulitti seeks to make. While he doesn’t actually say "vote for Kerry" in so many words his emphasis on the importance of victory in a contest between two candidates leaves no doubt that is his position. Therefore, he must also show us a persuasive argument to support a candidate that many have characterized as "Bush Lite." Unfortunately, even the best articulated advocacy of this position is hopelessly undermined by the cold reality of class struggle in the United States today. Let’s look at some of their best shots.

Jobs
Jobs have been lost and real wages have declined under Bush. Labor supporters of Kerry emphasize off-shoring and out-sourcing as major contributors to this erosion of job security and living standards. That’s fair enough–as far as it goes.

The fact is that off-shoring and falling real wages began picking up steam during the Clinton years. This is the direct result of "free trade" globalization policies, such as NAFTA and WTO, designed by Democrats and strongly supported by Senators Kerry and Edwards. The threat of off-shoring has been used as a hammer to chisel away take-backs from unionized workers, and a palpable threat to unorganized workers who would like to unionize, through both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

What does Kerry propose? Much has been made of his promise to eliminate tax incentives for companies who move jobs abroad. Actually, nearly all economists reckon this would have little if any effect. The tax incentives are a serendipitous bonus, not a major motivator. When a boss can pay a Chinese worker 44 cents an hour to do a job that pays twenty dollars an hour in the Rust Belt, that job is gone regardless of tax dodges.

How would Kerry stimulate the economy? Not by tax cuts for the rich, as Bush has done. No, Kerry urges tax cuts for corporations instead.

No Worker Is Illegal
In marshaling random arguments against Bush Brother Gulitti introduces a disturbing note. He cites reports that six-million immigrant workers from Latin America send thirty billion dollars a year from wages earned here back to families they had to leave behind. "What would 30 billion dollars spent here [have] done for jobs and the growth of the American economy?" he asks.

Now perhaps he thinks we should be working to reunite families with their bread winners in the USA so that all the money could be spent here–though somehow I doubt that is what he is hinting at. More likely this is a soft-peddled pandering to the prejudice against immigrant workers long nurtured by our bosses to keep us fighting among ourselves.

Many if not most immigrant workers–especially those from Latin America–are in jobs not wanted by native born American workers--janitors, maids, dish washers, farm hands, day laborers. These are similar to the kinds of jobs my ancestors had to take when they first arrived on these shores. They are not a threat to us–they are fellow workers.

And, where unions have shown the slightest interest, immigrant workers have become among the best fighters for improvements in wages, benefits, and working conditions. That’s right–improvements–in sharp contrast to the give-back agreements that have become all too common in long established bastions of the labor movement.

Instead of worrying about what kind of papers workers are carrying, or where their families they support may be residing, we should be helping them elevate low wages that tend to hold all of us down.

Health Care
Americans spend far more for health care than anybody else in the world–and the system sucks. A lot of small kids and elderly people are going to die needlessly this winter because those who control our access to health care couldn’t figure out how to get enough flu vaccine.

No other industrialized country has this problem. That’s because no other industrialized country allows medicine to be controlled by the market place, driven by hunger for increasing profit. Medicine everywhere else is a right, a public service. Medicine everywhere else gets as good, or often better results, for far less money.

So what does Kerry propose? Is he demanding the obvious solution, a single-payer system similar to Canada that would guarantee world class health care to all, choice of doctors, and lower costs? No. He suggests tax payer subsidies to employers to help ease the burden of rising insurance costs.

I said I’d look at some of the best shots of the pro-Kerry argument. That means ignoring the single most important issue to working people–the war. There is, of course, no difference between Kerry and Bush other than Kerry’s assurance he can fight this war based on lies, in pursuit of corporate interests, "better" than the present commander-in-chief.

There Will Be No Victory For Us This Year
I would not claim there is no difference between Bush and Kerry. I would even stipulate that in some areas Bush may be worse than Kerry. There is indeed a lesser evil and an evil lesser.

The fundamental flaw in Brother Gulitti’s perspective–which he shares with most of the leadership of the labor movement–is accepting these alternatives offered by the bosses as our only possible choice. Like our health care system America stands alone among industrialized countries in having no mass working class party at all. My choice is to ignore the bosses’ two-party scam and work toward building a party of our own, looking to the future rather than romanticizing a mythical past.

Brother Gulitti cites the old adage that there is no substitute for victory. That is undeniable. Kerry is no substitute for victory.

10/19/2004