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Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Hoping for a president I can hate

A friend of mine who was in SDS in the mid-1960s tells me, "You haven't had a decent president in your lifetime. When I was in college, I hated the President more than anyone in the world -- and he was trying to end poverty!"

Point well taken.

My hope is that John Kerry -- especially now with John Edwards on the ticket -- will be not just a NonBush, but my first decent president. And I have some reason to be hopeful here. The reason for hope is that Kerry and Edwards, unlike Clinton and Gore, actually support the right to organize.

The right to organize is by far the most important legislative achievement for workers -- though of course, it is connected to other issues, such as immigration, trade, and criminal-justice reform. Improvements like an expanded EITC, increased minimum wage, and even health-care reform are important and valuable. We need them. But even if wages and employment temporarily stagnated, an expanded right to organize both domestically and internationally would reap long-term rewards for working people everywhere. What the right to organize does is to enable workers to fight for and be secure in their own rights, rather than bow and scrape, hoping for scraps to fall from the table.

This latter circumstance describes the Clinton-Gore era.

First, consider Clinton-Gore's own list of accomplishments for workers, which touts job and wage growth, but leaves right-to-organize issues way at the bottom. And rightly so. Most of Clinton's right-to-organize achievements were minor and symbolic; they look good only under spin.

Second, check out the devastating critique lodged by the International Labor Rights Fund -- a mainstream organization that worked with Clinton on issues such as the "Fair Labor Association". According to ILRF's report on NAFTA, Clinton's track record on organizing was shameful.

Once elected, President Clinton significantly altered his campaign position and negotiated a supplemental agreement ... requiring only that each NAFTA country enforce its own labor standards. This labor "side agreement," the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation (NAALC) was wholly inadequate to deal with the complex issues of cross boarder labor regulation since it did nothing to correct the verified record of non-enforcement of labor laws in Mexico, particularly in the maquiladora plants. [...] In short, the USTR [US Trade Representative] acknowledges that NAALC has changed nothing significant with respect to labor law enforcement in North America and leaves many workers vulnerable to gross exploitation....

The report also refers to "the weakness of NAALC to influence wage bargaining and union organizing attempts in the United States by threatening to move production to Mexico." Its first prescription for fixing the NAALC is to end "the 'three-tier' division of rights enforcement that excludes the most fundamental labor rights (i.e., freedom of association, right to organize, bargain and strike, forced labor, discrimination, equal pay, workers' compensation and migrant labor etc.) from full treatment under the agreement". Why did Clinton not even try to do this?

And here's a final point. Union membership, especially in the private sector, was already in steep decline when Clinton took office, thanks to 12 years of all-out war on workers. How did Clinton solve this problem? As the Labor Party newsletter wrote back in 2000, "Many unions pinned their hopes on the 1994 bill that would have banned permanent replacement workers in a strike. It went down to defeat in the Senate while Clinton was off on a European excursion."

By dragging their feet on -- or, through NAFTA/NAALC, actively undermining -- the right to organize, Clinton and Gore harmed workers and increased inequality in the US and around the world. Their inaction on this issue demonstrated their desire to be regarded as the savior, as being responsible for any gains workers made; this was more important to them than actually helping workers make those gains.

And here's where Kerry and Edwards step in. Both in his Senate career and in the campaign so far, Kerry has been an important ally specifically on right-to-organize issues. The AFL-CIO gives Kerry a lifetime rating of 91%; Edwards, hailing from a "right to work" state, has a lifetime 96% rating (with many fewer years in the Senate). But because of the signal importance of the right to organize, what's more important than the rating on all AFL issues is candidates' actions and words on that one right. The AFL has catalogued a number of Kerry's recent stances, and is probably working on a release about Edwards as we speak. Kerry refused to cross a police picket line in Boston last week; he joined UFCW grocery employees on a picket in California earlier this year; he wrote to management at Comcast and Quebecor World asking that they respect their employees' right to organize; and (along with Edwards) he's a cosponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act (S. 1925).

A president who supports the right to organize is not simply preening for the history books. To the contrary: such a president knows he is likely to end up on the wrong side of a number of issues, facing down a strengthened, emboldened, and broad-based labor movement. Such a president doesn't just stand for the right things, but is willing to free the hand of people he can't control so that they can struggle on their own, even when it's inconvenient for him.

Ever since the beginning of this campaign season I've been impressed with Kerry on the right to organize. Now that Edwards is his running mate I am even more heartened. I'm becoming optimistic about the possibility of having a decent president for the first time in my life -- a president I can hate more than anyone else in the world, even though he's trying to end poverty.

And that's why I'm supporting Kerry this year, even though I supported Nader in 2000 and have no regrets about having done so.

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