Originally blogged at The Huffington Post on December 17, 2008
Written by Stewart Acuff, former organizing Director of the AFL-CIO, and current Chief of Staff at the Utility Workers Union of America
December ’08 Seattle Speech
The elections this year are the best and most meaningful some of us have ever seen:
- A sound rejection of Radical Rightwing Politics all over America,
- Rejection of an unnecessary and immortal war and occupation
- Acceptance of a more humble and normal foreign policy
- Rejection of unfettered capitalism
- Rejection of market dominance and idolatry
- Acceptance of the necessity of universal healthcare
- Finally, an acceptance that a healthy economy is an economy that works for, everyone including working families
- In some ways, maybe the biggest victory this year – a person of color, an African-American is President – helping us take another big step toward ending white male privilege
- And, for me, the election of a community organizer as President – A Community Organizer who ran his campaign like an organizing campaign – investing in the field and the street, recruiting and honoring volunteers, focusing on numbers and turnout especially in the caucuses, sweating the details.
America has changed in this election. It is up to us to build on that change and push it further.
For folks like us, this is truly a remarkable moment in American history an American politics. We should save it – then we gotta get to work!
We have a whole lot to do.
If our movement does not produce at this moment in history, folks my age will probably never see this kind of opportunity action.
So what do we produce?
We have to produce change – most importantly change that is deep enough and fundamental enough to change the quality of people’s lives. We also have to produce change that makes our side stronger, that strengthens our organizations and institutions, change that strengthens us for the long haul. A tendency has already emerged to wait for President-Elect Obama, to wait for him to lead. That is understandable but wrong. Obama will be pulled in multiple directions. All those he has surrounded himself with are not change agents. He told us all very clearly that change comes from the bottom up and change is the responsibility of all of us. He also told us his campaign was about all of us-not-just him. So we cannot wait for President-Elect Obama.
My list is by no means complete but I think we must organize and mobilize for fundamental change in at least four broad areas:
1) First restore the freedom of America’s workers to form unions and bargain collectively.
2) Win universal healthcare for everyone in America.
3) Re-orient ourselves to the rest of the world. Use what economic power we have left to lift the poor and workers in the developing world. Focus trade on what will benefit workers here and around the world.
4) Continue our imperfect struggle for equality and justice – for all of us.
Let us start with healthcare. As you know there are 47 million plus people in America without healthcare. What most do not know is that there are another 40 million with inadequate or unreliable healthcare. The number of lives lots and those with their health and quality of life ruined is unconscionable. And Republicans should never be forgiven for voting against additional funding for Children’s Health Insurance Program. What many do not know is what a drain, an economic drain, our sorry healthcare system is. All of us with health insurance pay for charity emergency care for these without. Companies, which provide healthcare are at a competitive disadvantage with these who do not. And globally, we are at a huge disadvantage – because the governments of most of our competitors provide healthcare so the employers do not have to. There is no better example than the auto industries where our competitors from Germany and Japan do not have to provide healthcare at home and do not bother to provide healthcare here. While the Big3 do.
One of the complaints of the punditocracy during the debate about the Big3 bridge loan was that their healthcare was too good! Too good! What? Because we are workers we are not entitled to healthcare? So clearly we need to continue to push for universal healthcare. When we win it, we will build a generation of loyalty strengthening us for the long hall.
We must re-orient our foreign policy and replace the stupid and silly Bush bravado with humility and genuine concern for the welfare of the planet and its people.
We have to end the unnecessary and immoral war and occupation in Iraq now. WE have to push to put environmental protections and workers rights at the core of our trade deals. If we can protect intellectual property rights in China we can protect children from abusive employers. So many issues are so closely linked globally. When they negotiated NAFTA, to win support from midwestern states, they forced the Mexican Government to end subsidies for growing corn and beans. So farmers and campesinos could no longer afford to grow it and workers cold no longer afford to buy it. So people and workers come to the US without documentation to feed their families. If a man or woman workers comes across any border trying to feed his/her kids, I do not call them illegal, I call them brother. I call them sister!
We must escalate the work we have begun to build a network of unions and worker organizations across the globe to better confront and challenger multi-national corporations and global capital. Capital is organized globally. Labor must be organized globally also. It is the only way we can hope to slow, and then stop the global economic race to the bottom. We have to learn and act on the fact that the welfare and quality of life of workers anywhere is directly tied to that of workers everywhere. There is no longer any excuse for us to allow any barriers to come between workers anywhere in the world. Too long we have been divided by renophobia, military nationalism, racism, ideology. No longer.
Next, we have to use this remarkable moment to accelerate our struggle for equality and justice for all people and to continue to break down the walls and barriers between us. To me, is a struggle to end a concept of “The Other”. Obama took us a long way in this fight. The campaign against him was not so much that he was black as it was that he was the other, different, not like the rest of us – his color, his name, bi-racial, lived in Indonesia as a child – summed up in one quote as a Black Muslim Socialist. But America got over that so now he and his brains, leadership and judgement give us the opportunity to accelerate our work to see all people as people and none as the other. As one who grew up in a very racist and homophobic culture, I believe that racism, bigotry, prejudice, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia emanate from fear and the notion that human differences create an otherness that is fundamental enough to validate unequal treatment. It is that otherness and fear that we must struggle against and defeat. Dr. King reminded us that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. That is one reason so many of us support the right of gay people or LGBT folks to marry their life partners. The other reason is a little line from a remarkable manifesto of freedom – the Declaration of Independence – All are created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So, we must accelerate our freedom struggle for all.
Finally, we have to fight to win human rights for workers. And we have to build economic and political power for workers. Just last Thursday night at about 11:00 Radical Rightwing Republicans successfully defeated a 14 to 15 billions dollar bridge loan for America’s auto companies. They did this because the UAW would not commit to voluntarily slashing their wages and healthcare to the level of non-union workers at the foreign transplant factories. They did this after complaining that UAW members live too well. That they feed their kids too well, that they have too much healthcare. Too much healthcare? How in hell can you have too much healthcare? And isn’t this the American Dream? That if you work hard you should be able to provide a good life for your family, take care of your kids, provide a future that is better than the past. Aren’t these American Values? That an honest day’s work deserves an honest day’s pay. And how in hell can you deny a bridge loan that is essential to our whole economy when you just gave the very folks who really created the crisis a $700 billions bailout with no strings attached. No questions asked. No business plan needed. Hell yes, there is a class war-against us. The day before that vote was December 10, International Human Rights Day. It was the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the declaration created by the free world in the wake of defeat of Nazism and Facism in Europe and Japanese Imperialism in the Pacific. The declaration includes free speech, freedom from torture but also the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.
To the detriment of almost all in America, our economy and the world’s economy we have lost those freedoms and form unions and bargain collectively.
After all how can it be a right in America to form unions and bargain collectively when – if you do – you stand a 1 in 5 change of being fired, if over 20,000 workers a year are retaliated against for trying to exercise those rights, if 4 in 10 workers or 40% of all workers who win union recognition never successfully bargain a 1st contract. Howe can it be a right to form a union if it takes a phenomental act of courage by average workers?
Those freedoms were systematically abolished by a 30 year sustained, intentional assault by Corporate America and their Radical Rightwing Republican Allies in Government.
But now we have lot so much more than fundamental human rights.
In large part, because workers no longer are free to form unions and bargain collectively, we have had a 30-year wage freeze. Our wages have been stagnant, flatlined for 30 years! Because of that wage freeze – 30 years wage freeze – remember we had 10 years without an increase in the minimum wage – working families were forced to borrow more and more to try to keep up and meet necessities. So we incurred more and more debt – we got 2nd mortgages or refinanced our homes, incurring mortgage debt, education debt, medical debt as more and more of us lost our health insurance.
All that debt created a bubble that now has burst and we are now in the worst recession we have had since the great Depression, the worst economy in our lifetime, more inequality since the 1920′s and we may well be sliding into another Great Depression because we (The American people) have allowed them to starve the Middle Class, destroy our standard of living, destroy our families’ financial security and destroy the economic futures of our kids and grandkids.
We should have seen it coming. As more and more people slipped from the Middle Class into poverty, as more adult children moved back home with their parents, as Bush destroyed 3 million manufacturing jobs, as we watched the gap between the rich and the rest of us get wider an wider, as we watched profits and CEO pay explode
- 30 years ago the average CEO made about 40 times as much as the average worker. Today it is 400 times.
- 47 millions of us without healthcare – more than in 1965 when we created Medicare and Medicaid
- 20% more of us in poverty than at the end of the last century when George Bush took office
- All this while our productivity went up 75% in those same 30 years.
So that now all economists agree that there just is not enough money in the economy to sustain a healthy economy.
Workers – the vast majority of Americans – just do not have enough money to fuel the economic engine of America.
- So last spring they sent us a $300 per person stimulus check.
- This fall they gave the world’s biggest banks a $700 billion bailout.
- Now they don’t want to give a $15 billion bridge loan to the big 3 because they say UAW members live too well, have too much healthcare, feed their kids too well.
We live too well? What is wrong with these people? What is wrong with them?
The good news is that this can be fixed. It does not have to be this way. We have legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act to begin to restore our freedoms to form unions & bargain collectively. It will do 3 simple straightforward, common sensensical things. 1) Impose real penalties on employers who violate the law, 2) allow workers to seek arbitration to settle first contract disputes, 3) allow workers a free choice to form a union by signing a card.
President-Elect Obama supports this legislation. That support is the main reason we worked so hard to get him elected.
And in 2007 we got majority votes in both Houses and Congress to pass this legislation. 241-185 in the House of Representatives. 51-48 in the Senate – a majority but not enough to break the Radial Rightwing Republicans filibuster.
Brothers and sisters, this is within our power. Our destiny, our kids futures, our country’s future is in our hands. But we have to fight like hell to get this done.
The same folks who ruined our economy, spent $30 million trying to beat Senate candidates who support the Employee Free Choice Act. They will spend $200 million more this year to stop us. They will run TV, radio, newspaper ads. They will call us thugs and goors and union bosses. They are already saying we should let the auto industry die out. They will say you cannot do this because the economy is bad, you cannot do this because it will make us uncompetitive.
And we are gonna have to fight all over again, fight, scratch and claw to hold, protect and win every vote in the House and Senate. We are going to have to engage every activist, every worksite leader, everyone who cares about working families and our labor movement. We are going to have to challenge each other. It will take time and energy and work and some sacrifice. But winning for workers has always taken those things. Mostly it will take a fight. But we can win if we fight. It is up to us. No one will deliver this change on a silver platter. I am ready for this fight. Are you?Tags: acuff, AFL-CIO, Barack Obama, Labor Unions, nafta, news, Politics News, stewart acuff, stewartacuff, unions