Labor's Foot Soldiers
Organized labor is making certain Barack Obama and other Democratic candidates will have plenty of foot soldiers to help them round up votes on this year's campaign trails.
The AFL-CIO has already launched what is likely to be the biggest and most intensive political mobilization in labor history. The federation is hoping to play a major role in electing Obama president and in electing enough other Democrats to create a "worker-friendly Congress."
Thousands of volunteers, many going door-to-door, are slated to spread the word among union members and others. They'll be speaking urgently of a need to replace anti-labor President George Bush with pro-labor Obama rather than anti-labor John McCain, and to increase the Democrats' Senate margin by enough to block Republican filibusters of pro-labor legislation.
Labor aims to turn out more than 13 million voters - union members, their families, retirees and others - in two-dozen key states, where volunteers also will campaign for labor supporters who are seeking state and local offices.
The AFL-CIO isn't going it alone. It's being joined in campaigning for Obama and in developing other common political strategies by members of the rival Change to Win federation. That powerful group is made up of seven unions, including some of the country's most militant and influential unions, that left the AFL-CIO in 2005 over policy and operational differences. For now, the labor forces are concentrating on Obama, who has promised to be one of the best friends unions have ever had in the White House.
The feelings are mutual. The AFL-CIO says Obama "has advocated a change of direction for our nation that mirrors the priorities of the labor movement .... He has vowed to fight for working families and for an economy that works for all - and he has the record to prove it."
Obama's record includes his work as a community organizer helping workers who'd lost their jobs in the closing of steel mills, as an Illinois state senator sponsoring legislation to expand health care and protect workers' rights to overtime pay and as a member of the U.S. Senate whose voting record is rated as 98 percent favorable to labor.
"And all along," the AFL-CIO noted, "he's marched on picket lines and rallied with striking workers."
High among Obama's many specific promises to labor is what Steelworkers Union President Leo Girard hailed as a plan "to revitalize American manufacturing and make workers the top priority in any trade agreement."
As Girard said, Obama opposes the current Central American and Colombia Free Trade Agreements because they subject U.S. workers and their employers to unfair competition. He says he'll insist that any new agreements call for fair and equal treatment of workers here and in the other countries signing the agreements.
Unions are particularly impressed with Obama's pledge to ensure that women workers, who are generally paid less than men and often denied equal treatment otherwise, "are treated like the equal partners they are."
But of overriding importance to labor is Obama's unequivocal support for the proposed Employee Free Choice Act. It would give workers the right to unionization that's been denied millions of them because of government opposition and the weakness of the labor laws. The act's key provisions would greatly increase fines for employer violations of workers' union rights and automatically grant union recognition on the showing of union membership cards by a majority of an employer's workers.
And that's not all Obama promises. He says he'll do whatever else it might take to "strengthen the ability of workers to organize unions." He supports labor's attempts to prohibit employers from permanently replacing strikers and the attempts to raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation so it would rise as the cost-of-living rises.
He promises to try to reverse decisions by the Bush-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board that have taken union rights from thousands of workers and says that, unlike Bush's appointees, his appointees to positions dealing with unions will support workers' rights.
Defeating John McCain is as important to labor as electing Obama, for McCain's stand on key labor issues is the opposite of Obama. There's of course no guarantee that a President Obama could do or would even try to do all that he's promised labor, but it is certain that a President McCain would guarantee labor at least four more years of angry futility.
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based journalist who has covered labor and political issues for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com