Unions Forced Back into the Streets

California voters on June 2 will decide whether labor unions should be required to ask each member for permission to use part of their dues to pay for political operations. This is payback for 1996, when unions spent $58 million, mainly to attack anti-union Republicans and support Democrats in congressional races. The unions helped the Democrats close the gap in the U.S. House of Representatives and they helped the Democrats regain control of the California legislature. The GOP and its big-business backers don't want to face a repeat of that effort so they have engineered the Proposition 226 referendum in California and similar measures in 28 other states to occupy organized labor's purse this spring so the unions will have less money to spend fighting anti-union candidates this fall.

These so-called "paycheck protection" initiatives are part of a systematic effort by the pro-business right to defund the main financial supporters of progressive and Democratic candidates. We already have seen "tort reform" campaigns in individual states and in Congress to limit the damage awards in personal injury lawsuits. This also reduces the incentive for a lawyer to take a lawsuit against a deep-pockets corporation and lawyers are left with less income to contribute to progressive political candidates.

There is no denying that passage of Proposition 226 and similar initiatives in other states would hamstring unions and put workers at a further financial disadvantage in trying to get the attention of politicians. Voters in Washington state and Michigan approved similar initiatives limiting union political fundraising in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Within a year of passage in Washington, according to Daniel Wood of the Christian Science Monitor, the number of teachers union members contributing $1 a month to political funds dropped from 48,000 to 8,000. In Michigan, the top 10 labor political action committees have seen a 97 percent drop-off in contributions, from $4.3 million to $140,287.

Wall Street already has a contempt for unions and so does Capitol Hill. Even with the ambitious AFL-CIO campaign, businesses outspent labor unions by a factor of 11 to 1 in the 1996 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While the AFL-CIO reportedly is spending $8 million to fight the California initiative, business groups and right-wing foundations reportedly have raised $150 million to promote the nationwide effort to defund the unions. Even when their purses are full the unions are outbid by the captains of industry who want to downsize, outsource and decertify.

The practical effect of these defunding efforts is to widen the fundraising advantage of the Republicans, who already get two-thirds of business donations. But the defunding of labor also makes the Democrats more reliant on business contributions, encouraging the rightward tilt of that party.

The only way for unions to fight these big business power plays is to get out of their offices and onto the streets. Maybe taking away their checkbook -- as unfair and wrongheaded as that tactic is -- will produce a backlash that the business lobby will come to regret.

As Jim Hightower is fond of saying, Wall Street has the fat cats, but the unions have the alley cats. It's time for the alley cats to show what they are made of. Unions might be dismissed as an anachronism, ignored or vilified in the conglomerate-controlled newspapers and broadcast networks but they still have millions of members who can knock on doors, pass out pamphlets, work phone banks and vote. This is not Indonesia -- at least not yet.

AFL-CIO leaders appear to recognize the necessity of getting back to basics. Even before the California vote, they announced they were scaling back the federation's congressional campaign spending, to $20 million this year. However, the labor federation plans to do a better job of registering its 13 million members, educating them on the issues and getting them and their family and friends out to vote. This year the AFL-CIO plans to have 300 coordinators working in local congressional races, compared with 130 in 1996, when Democrats came within 20 seats of regaining the House majority.

If the Democrats unseat 12 Republicans this fall, they send Newt Gingrich and his union-busting friends packing.

Union leaders say a major reason the Democrats did better in the 1996 congressional elections than in 1994 was that union households accounted for 23 percent of voters in 1996, up from 14 percent two years earlier, and they hope to keep that interest up. "If 1998 looks more like '94 than '96, our candidates lose," AFL-CIO political director Steven Rosenthal told the New York Times.

Turnout traditionally is down in non-presidential elections, which normally hurts Democratic candidates. Conventional wisdom holds that more affluent voters are more likely to turn out and vote Republican in off-year elections. But workingclass voters who are fed up with politics as usual could make a difference if they are convinced that their vote is meaningful and they aren't just putting a new suit in Congress who will sell out to the highest bidder.

The AFL-CIO already has identified issues that working-class voters care about, including a new push to raise the minimum wage, a patients' bill of rights in their dealings with health maintenance organizations and concerns about the Republican move to privatize Social Security.

Some of our readers may have trouble getting excited about a Democratic Party that under Bill Clinton is increasingly identified with big business, free trade that moves manufacturing jobs overseas and tax breaks for the wealthy. But anybody who doesn't think that Dick Gephardt and David Bonior would be a major improvement over Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey in the House leadership just isn't paying attention.

Foreign Workers Fracas

The Senate on May 18 voted to make at least 30,000 more work permits available to skilled foreigners. In the weeks before the vote the mainstream news media focused on the complaints of high-tech companies that they couldn't find qualified programmers while foreigners were waiting for H1B visas. However, American computer technicians, particularly older workers, complain that they are being replaced by foreigners who are willing to work longer hours for less money.

Those complaints are backed up by a 1996 Labor Department study that found the foreign worker visa program failed to protect U.S workers' jobs or wages and is riddled with abuses. In March the congressional General Accounting Office disputed assertions by the Commerce Department and trade groups that there is a shortage of computer workers. But S. 1723 by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), which passed 78-20, would raise the allotment from the current 65,000 to 115,000 in each of the following five years. The Senate rejected amentments by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to require the companies to guarantee that they had made efforts to hire U.S. workers for the jobs being filled by foreigners (rejected 60-38) and that no U.S. workers had been laid off from those jobs (rejected 59-39).

The House is expected to take up H.R. 3736 by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), which would increase the number of visas but would seek to ensure that U.S. workers get first shot at the jobs. Without those requirements, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman has said she will recommend that President Clinton veto the visa increase.

Call your Congress member at 202-224-3121 or toll-free at 1-800-504-0031 and urge opposition to any increase in foreign worker visas unless the industry certifies that the foreigners will not displace American workers.

-- Jim Cullen

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