While many would say there is little for working people to celebrate as we approach this Labor Day, I see new hope in the rising number of working people standing up to fight back for themselves and all working-class families. Despite an unprecedented wave of attacks on our country's workers, or maybe because of them, working people across the country have begun to come together and fight back to reclaim their rights and voice in our economic and political debates.
If given the chance to truly flourish, this rising fightfor true independent political power for working people, whether you are in a union or not, has the potential to repaint the landscape of our economy for the good.
The last few years of the Great Recession has pounded on average Americans, driving workers wages down and unemployment up. Their suffering has been compounded by ceaseless attacks from extreme right-wing business interests that are seeking to undermine the very institutions that helped create the middle class and make the United States the greatest country in the world. Anti-worker and anti-union forces have launched a multi-front war in which working people are collateral damage in their efforts to gain greater power and profits. Corporate control and influence at all levels of government have resulted in the elimination of worker's rights to collectively bargain through legislation like Ohio's Senate Bill 5 and Wisconsin's anti-union legislation. Those same interests are seeking to dismantle any institutions that put limits on their power, including the National Labor Relations Board, the main federal agency charged with enforcing laws to protect workers. It is a nationally coordinated campaign driven by organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that proliferates anti-worker and pro-corporate legislation and are funded by the likes of the Koch Brothers.
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In the face of the onslaught, average Americans have come together armed with little more than the strength of their numbers and the determination of folks with little left to lose. In Wisconsin, hundreds of thousands braved the cold to fight Governor Walker's extreme agenda. While they lost the initial battle, they never gave up and later fought back with recall elections that changed the balance of power, if not outright control in their legislature. In Ohio and Michigan and states across the country, voter anger has sent anti-worker leaders into a partial retreat as the backlash against anti-worker legislation has driven down the polling numbers for Republican governors once thought untouchable in the strength of their popularity. Across the country, Americans supported 45,000 striking Verizon workers, forcing the telecommunications giant back to the negotiating table to work in good faith with their employees. And in hundreds of town halls and events across the country, thousands of working people are giving their Congressional representatives an earful on their failure to make any real progress on the job crisis.
The cumulative effect has started to change the national political debate. The conversation slowly, but surely, is shifting from debts and deficits to jobs and growth. Top-tier presidential candidates are rushing to be first out of the gate with jobs proposals. President Obama will address Congress and the nation about what we hope will be a bold plan to put people back to work. Congress, with approval numbers already at historic lows, will be judged by their dedication to growth-oriented strategies or they will face an even greater backlash against their inertia and political stalemates. Leaders in Washington are now recognizing what million of Americans already know – we can't cut our way out of a bad economy, we have to grow our way out. Deficits will shrink as millions of Americans happily return to work and are able to contribute their share from a steady paycheck.
The tables are turning in another way. Americans' faith in government's ability to solve the major problems facing this country have hit an all-time low. So, they are standing up for themselves because they no longer believe that their government and elected leaders will stand up for them. As a result, working people are rebuilding an independent political force akin to the labor movement that transformed this country in the early 20th century. It is a progressive movement the does not rely on party or individual icons. It is not beholden to any particular institution or individual. It is growing organically in every corner of our country, and national leaders are now quickly moving to follow its lead.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, echoed the frustration of working people recently when he declared the AFL's plan to build its own political structures and organizations rather than contribute to and depend on the Democratic Party's political operation. In a recent interview he stated:
“We're going to use a lot of our money to build structures that work for working people” Trumka said. “You're going to see us give less money to build structures for others and more of our money will be used to build our own structure.”
This represents a fundamental shift in labor's traditional approach and bodes well for creating the infrastructure we need to affect real and lasting change for working people in this country.
Other labor organizations will likely follow suit, and many are already building the process sparked in Wisconsin of bringing union and nonunion workers together in their mutual fight for survival.
One group that has served this mission for nearly a decade, Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, works to bring nonunion voters out as activists on issues impacting all working people and unions. Their extensive canvass program and activist mobilization is right now on the ground all over Ohio – in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Canton – engaging both union and nonunion voters on how Governor Kasich's anti-worker bill SB-5 (now known as Issue 2) negatively effects their communities. In August alone, they knocked on 70,000 doors and had 25,000 conversations about the bill.
We Are Ohio is another example of union and nonunion activists coming together to push back on the wide-spread attacks on middle-class workers. After Governor Kasich and Republicans in the legislature passed Senate Bill 5, which strips public workers of their collective bargaining rights, a broad coalition came together under the We Are Ohio banner to fight back and put a recall of the repressive legislation on the ballot. The law required that the group collect more than 230,000 signatures to put the initiative on the ballot. After more than 10,000 volunteers worked across the state, We Are Ohio and over 6,000 supporters marched through Columbus and delivered nearly 1.3 million signatures to the secretary of state's office. That's more than five times the required number of signatures
These efforts are not isolated incidents. The Service Employees International Union's hugely successful Fight for a Fair Economy campaign canvassed and engaged tens of thousands of nonunion workers in more than a dozen major cities across the country. The progressive movement at large also is coming together with new energy around economic justice with effective alliances like We Are One and the newly birthed American Dream Movement turning out tens of thousands of disenfranchised voters to speak out on economic justice issues.
When President Obama addresses the nation this week and presents his vision on jobs, we can only hope that he will also follow the lead of the thousands of working people standing up and demanding bold solutions to the big problems facing American families. Working people's tolerance for Washington's inaction has reached its limit and they no longer are just demanding change; they are making it for themselves. On this Labor Day, let's solute these new pioneers, seeking to be the heirs to the best of what America has historically been able to offer.