Reprinted from Alternet (August 30, 2012)
If conservatives have their way, there won’t be much of a labor voice by this time next year.
Attacks on hard-working people are nothing new in America. Sixty-five years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady and architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, wrote these words: “Labor Day this year is not a day for rejoicing for the labor groups, or for those who are interested in good labor conditions throughout the nation.” In 1947 she was worried about the Taft-Hartley Act, which was the first major legislation to weaken unions since the New Deal. The rights of the people who drive the economy and form the backbone of the country were under siege.
How true her words ring today. And nowhere are they truer than in California.
While the attack on workers and their unions has been steady for decades, anti-union fervor escalated in the past two years since Scott Walker became governor of Wisconsin and the entire country watched him eliminate collective bargaining for public sector unions. His torch has been picked up in Ohio, Indiana and many other states. The Republican anti-union plans were on full display at the convention last week in Tampa, Florida.
Now it has come to California in our initiative process. Proposition 32, the “Billionaires Bill of Rights,” is on the ballot this November. Its purpose is to virtually eliminate the ability of labor unions to make contributions to political candidates and campaigns.
Prop 32 would ban money raised through voluntary deductions from a worker’s paycheck being used for political purposes.
This will mute workers’ voices in the political process. Unions will not be allowed to communicate with their own members on political issues, much less communicate with the general public on candidates and issues affecting their everyday lives: cuts to our schools, police and fire protection, patient health, workplace safety.
While dressed in the guise of “campaign finance reform,” the proposition will have virtually no impact on the campaign contributions of corporate executives, independently wealthy individuals, law firms or real estate trusts. Contributions to super PACs will be business as usual.
Members of the 1 percent do not use paycheck deductions to contribute to political candidates and campaigns. They use excessive profits, excessive interest on investments, excessive compensation. In Prop 32 we have a fine example of what Mrs. Roosevelt would call a “predatory and misleading campaign.” Opposition to this effort comes not only from labor but from groups like the California League of Women Voters, which says it is “unfair and unbalanced, restricting unions while not stopping corporate special interests.”
There is also a second shoe to drop. If Prop 32 passes this year, next year we can expect to see other anti-labor propositions like a “right-to-work” law further weakening private sector unions and an end to collective bargaining for teachers, firefighters, nurses, and police officers. The workers’ ability to fight back will be stopped by Prop 32.
In the 1930s the new CIO unions became key political players during the Roosevelt administration. Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt worked closely with the labor movement from local races in New York City to the presidential campaigns. Mrs. Roosevelt saw unions as fundamental to the democratic process. Shethrived on educating union members and rallying them to register people to vote, participate in conventions and campaigns, and get people to the polls on election day.
Union membership skyrocketed during the New Deal. By 1936, John L. Lewis, president of the mighty United Mine Workers Union, led the effort to establish Labor’s Non-Partisan League. They contributed half a million dollars, a staggering amount at the time, and most of it went to help FDR’s reelection campaign. In 1944 Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, created the first political action committee, CIO-PAC, to support Roosevelt’s fourth term. Then, as now, they were outspent by the anti-union forces. Mrs. Roosevelt concluded in her column that while “labor today is stronger than it used to be, it is no stronger than organized capital.”
We first celebrated Labor Day in 1882 in New York City. Organized by the Central Labor Union, 10,000 workers took unpaid leave to march from City Hall to 92nd Street, demanding their rights for better pay, shorter hours and an end to children working in the mines and factories. In 1894 the first Monday in September became a national holiday to honor workers and their unions with parades and speeches, picnics and parties, and a day off of work. While the day now marks the end of summer and the beginning of school, Labor Day has also become the unofficial start of the political campaign season. It’s a fitting day to discuss Proposition 32.
Eleanor Roosevelt warned us that when fear and prejudice are running high, “We may wake up to find that in trying to remedy certain wrongs, we have shorn ourselves of certain very precious freedoms.” Shelley Kessler, executive secretary-treasurer for the San Mateo Labor Council, challenges us: “Let’s get out into our neighborhoods, mobilize friends and family, and defeat these attacks.”
Don’t let this be California’s last real Labor Day.
Brigid O’Farrell is an independent scholar affiliated with Mills College and the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. Her most recent book is She Was One of Us: Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker (Cornell University Press).