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Building the Movement to Reclaim Democracy

Diana Hicks of CWA Local 13500 phone banks in Pittsburgh ahead of the 2008 election. (Photo: aflcio / flickr)

Larry Cohen has headed the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America (CWA), under the banner of “Fight Back,” since 2005. Prior to that, he headed up CWA organizing for twenty years. He is also founder of Jobs with Justice. (Truthout staff belong to the CWA.) Other Worlds contributor Beverly Bell interviewed Cohen in honor of International Human Rights Day on December 10. Here’s what he had to say.

Given the path we’ve been on in this country, the American dream is in tatters. Whether it’s a voice on the job or our standard of living or health care or education, all are being destroyed on our watch. But we can stand up and fight back. Not only through the kind of spontaneous movement that people saw with Occupy, but a more sustained and broad-based movement that can work for constitutional change as well as protect people’s houses; secure, sustainable jobs; health care; our retirement, whether it’s social security or pensions; and on and on.

CWA members are involved because they know that if they want to maintain their collective bargaining and organizing rights, they have to reclaim democracy first. There’s a direct link between the collapse of democracy, as it would be defined in most of the world, and the collapse of bargaining rights in the U.S. which are lower than in any other democracy except Colombia, if you call that a democracy. In CWA we focus increasingly on building a movement for democracy and economic justice.

By democracy, first we mean getting the money out of politics. The U.S. spends more than any nation in the world on elections. In the 2012 federal elections alone, we spent about $7 billion, with each presidential candidate spending about $1.5 billion and the remaining $4 billion on the congressional elections. Campaign finance reform requires constitutional change. We need a constitutional amendment that money is not speech, and corporations are not people. This will require years of work and massive grassroots action.

Second, we need to push now to change the U.S. Senate rules [which currently operate so as to obstruct all Democratic or progressive legislation]. You have a senate that functions like the senate of ancient Rome, where unanimous consent was required to move forward. We are focused on changing the senate rules by a majority vote on the first day of the 2013 Congress. This is more of a grass-tops mobilization, led by national and community organizations working for economic justice and democracy. Fifty Democratic senators can change the rules in January and return to the talking filibuster of the 1960s and before. This is not radical change, it just allows the senate to begin to function and force debate.

The third issue is voter suppression, leading to a need for universal voter registration. We have the lowest voter registration, and therefore voter turn-out, of any democracy. Also, more than 30 states have recently passed voter suppression legislation. In most countries, citizens are registered [to vote automatically] by their governments and registration is virtually universal. And the whole notion of registration is this complicated process that, again, costs hundreds of millions of dollars in every election cycle. Universal voter registration will either require a constitutional amendment or it will have to be fought out in every state. Again, it will take time and a major organizing effort.

And finally, an entire generation of immigrants has no path to legalization, when only 80 years ago every immigrant who was here was legal. If they chose citizenship, getting it was easy. There is lots of momentum around the immigrants’ rights fight, with DREAMER kids [undocumented youth trying to open a route to citizenship through passage of the DREAM Act] and hundreds of different groups around the country.

About one hundred groups will be meeting together on December 10, Human Rights Day, to build the coalition to reclaim democracy. Labor, greens, NAACP and other civil rights groups, Public Citizen, Common Cause, some legal activists like the Brennan Center, other think tanks, International People’s Action, Center for Community Change, and coalitions of community groups will be part of it. We’re still in the early stages [of working together] to achieve changes in this democracy.

We’re also doing movement-building that is needed if we are really going to build a 21st century democracy and a real chance for economic justice. When we say movement-building, that goes beyond coalition-building. In a coalition, local, regional, or national leaders work together; it’s grass-tops. The movement that we’re talking about is where people blend together around something, so it looks more like the Arab spring than a coalition. Our view is that members of groups – not just of labor unions but community organizations, immigrant groups, greens, students – need to build structures and work together. It won’t just be at the ballot box or pushing for constitutional change. It will be in the streets, and it will be difficult and at times messy. But it also needs to be easy for individuals and groups to get involved, to organize and to take action.

For example, we are working with Stand Up for Ohio which works for good jobs and strong communities across the state. Our local unions are involved but individual members can get involved, too, joining with others who have worked together locally and state-wide. We will have to build organizations like Stand Up across the country, uniting around democracy and economic justice issues. Again, for us at CWA, especially the critical issues of bargaining and organizing rights so working women and men have a meaningful voice.

We’ve needed to take Human Rights Day [as our own] and celebrate it. When it was started in 1948 with U.N. support [corresponding to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights], Eleanor Roosevelt was speaking about it in terms of political and workplace democracy. The United States had Jim Crow laws then, but in other ways the U.S. was viewed as a frontline democratic post-World War II nation with the strongest labor movement in the world. Today, 65 years later, collective bargaining has gone from 35% of the private sector with bargaining coverage, to 6.8%, and political democracy is in shambles.

Playing by our current rules is like playing with loaded dice. Whether it’s any of the issues I mentioned above, or climate change or stopping foreclosures…. We need to build movement and throw down together, standing up and fighting back.

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