WHY UNIONS - AND THEIR MEMBERS - SHOULD SUPPORT RALPH NADER
WHY UNIONS - AND THEIR MEMBERS - SHOULD SUPPORT RALPH NADER
by Jim Smith L.A. Labor News
July 17 A generational shift in the U.S. political scene is underway.
The new and most important issue for every politician and every voter is
becoming who is on the side of the corporations and who is on the side of
the people (everyone else).
"Global capitalism versus the people" is becoming the rallying
cry in the same way that "slave or free" was the issue in the
generation leading up to the civil war and "winning the war" was
the overwhelming political issue of the 1940s.
Poor and working-class people are beginning to abandon Democrats, who as
a party abandoned Roosevelt's New Deal some years ago. Now, the Democrats
have joined with the Republicans, who once called themselves the Party of
Lincoln, to promote the interests of global corporate capitalism at any
This has been a long evolutionary process for the two parties. What's new
in 2000 is a growing revulsion with corporate political parties by millions
of ordinary people, labor unions and nearly every other non-corporate
segment of society.
Ralph Nader has every right to say "I told you so" to those who
are just waking up to political realities. For more than 30 years he has
tirelessly campaigned as a consumer advocate and has warned against the
growing power and arrogance of the corporations. Labor has largely ignored
In the past, unions have addressed the ills of society, if at all, from
the view of production - plant closings, layoffs, wages and violations of
workers' rights. Nader spoke another language, that of people as consumers -
product liability, high prices, HMO reform, education reform and corporate
responsibility. Since Seattle, a growing number of labor leaders and
activists have discovered that a one-dimensional analysis of the economy is
insufficient. Workers are also consumers. Union members want to live in a
healthy and pleasant environment as much as anyone else.
Does Ralph Nader care about production issues? Can he relate to people
who live from paycheck to paycheck (or no paycheck to no paycheck)? What
does he really know or care about unions?
In two remarkable speeches, one to the NAACP convention on July 11 and
another at a union rally in San Jose last March, Nader made it clear that he
understands, as no other candidate does, the conditions of the poor, people
of color, women and the unions. In the San Jose speech, Nader discussed the
importance of unions in a democratic society, and called for their
transformation into "social-movement unionism," that is, as part
of a grand alliance to improve people's well being.
Said Nader: "The early view of unions was a vision of a just
society. The entire society's direction was the interest of those early
union organizers. They weren't just interested in getting a decent standard
of living for their workplace. But those early union philosophers and
organizers were replaced by business unionism, or as one major union leader
said, "What does American labor want? Here's my answer: More." And
that played right into the hands of corporations and their divide-and-rule
tactics of pitting labor against other less fortunate people in the
Nader then went on to describe how important a strong labor movement can
be: "The only countervailing force of any organized significance in
America today to global corporations are trade unions. And their membership,
as a percent of overall labor, has shrunk precipitously. One reason is that
our labor laws are much more difficult for workers who want to form unions
than they are in Western Europe and Canada this is something that should
be pretty high on our public agenda this year."
Perhaps the most important contribution of Nader and his supporters to
this election is his injection of real issues into the campaign. Neither
Gore nor Bush want to talk about specifics. Such talk can only hurt their
standing with one group or another, say their media handlers.
The major weakness of the Nader campaign is its lack of an organizational
base. Nader is the presidential candidate of the Green Party, which is small
and weak compared to the Democrats and Republicans, two institutionalized
pillars of our society. (In July, the Los Angeles City Council gave the
Democrats $4 million for their convention. Not even in Mexico, would such a
blatant giveaway of public funds to a political party be allowed.)
However, this organizational weakness can be overcome, to some extent, by
the most progressive segments of labor getting behind him with
organizational clout. Whether the auto workers or the Teamsters ultimately
support Nader is probably not as significant as what could happen if
hundreds of local unions and thousands of union activists decide
they've had enough of free trade, NAFTA, privatization and corporatization,
union busting and downsizing.
THE FEAR FACTOR
Democratic spin doctors are already raising the "Fear-of-Bush"
specter. It's likely to reach a deafening roar by election day. In many
union organizing campaigns, the employer attempts to turn workers' hopes of
better pay and conditions into irrational fear that a union victory will
cause massive layoffs or that the company will close, thereby scaring the
workers into voting against their best interest, a union. Likewise, the Gore
campaign seems to have nothing going for it as a positive inducement to
attract votes. Therefore, instilling fear that Nader will be a spoiler and
put the right-wing Bush into office is the hammer it will continue to pound.
This fear campaign should not be underestimated. It can have a strong
impact on those who have the most to lose or believe their fate is tied to
the success of the Democrats. However, just as the present Supreme Court
recently upheld the Miranda decision, a future Bush-appointed Court is
unlikely to overturn Roe vs. Wade or past civil rights decisions. Some labor
leaders and members also are fearful that they will lose the few crumbs that
are thrown their way by Democratic politicians (even though labor law reform
seems to have been the furthest thing from Bill Clinton's mind during the
past eight years). It can be argued that our rights would be better
protected with a Democratic Congress and a Republican President than vice
Nader's response is worth considering. He says that if he is able to
bring millions of voters to the polls who would not have otherwise bothered
to vote, it could mean the election of a Democratic House and Senate.
Presumably Nader voters will also vote for progressive Democrats since few
Greens are running for Congress. (A notable exception is Medea Benjamin who
is running a strong campaign in California where incumbent Diane Feinstein
is far ahead of her Republican challenger.)
In addition, Nader boldly proposes that the Democrats could use a
four-year cold shower in presidential politics. The national Democratic
Party has been captured by the Democratic Leadership Council, an
organization of free-traders who have initiated and promoted the notorious
"third-way" ideology. "Third way" European leaders,
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder,
also are busy dismantling their countries strong labor movements and social
benefits. The bottom line for the DLC and the "third way" is that
anything standing in the way of (corporate) progress is backward and should
be removed. This includes strong union contracts, welfare and government
programs (except for corporate welfare). We can expect more of the same from
"Mr. NAFTA," Al Gore, if he is elected.
The fight for the control of our planet against a small corporate elite
is just beginning. The Nader campaign holds the promise of bringing
anti-global capital protests and sentiment into the political arena where
they can begin to force real dialogue and change.
In the final analysis, it's very simple: Nader is on our side. Gore and
Bush are on the side of the global corporations.
(Jim Smith, <JSmith@LALabor.org>, is a labor activist and editor of