Look at the northern European countries. They seem so different from the United States. Universal health care. Very little poverty. Better education. Better family leave and childcare policies. What do these countries have in common?
Working people in these countries have more political power than working people in the United States.
If the Employee Free Choice Act becomes law, more working people in America will join unions and as America's labor unions become stronger, working people in America will have more political power, like they do in northern Europe. That's why there's a wall of opposition from Wall Street. It's not just about wages and benefits. Wall Street financial institutions don't pay their employees so badly. It's about the political power of working people - including the power to rein in corporations. And that's key to many other domestic reforms. If there were a more powerful counterweight to the insurance industry's political power, we'd already have universal health care. If there were a more powerful counterweight to Wall Street's political power, there might not have been a housing bubble and a financial crisis, and even if there were, we'd be restructuring the banks now instead of bailing them out with hundreds of billions in tax dollars. If there were a more powerful counterweight to the political power of the pharmaceutical industry, we'd all be paying Canadian prices for prescription drugs.
But suppose what really moves you is reforming U.S. foreign policy. You're tired of the U.S. being an international outlaw, invading other people's countries, bombing their villages, killing their children, toppling their governments, killing America's youth in the process. Do you have any stake in the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act?
Absolutely you do.
At any point in time, the folks who want peace have to oppose new and ongoing wars with whomever is available. You oppose war with the peace movement you have, not the peace movement you might like to have, as Donald Rumsfeld might say. But in the long run, we're never going to get a foreign policy that truly reflects the values and interests of the majority of Americans until working people in America - the vast majority of the population - have more political power.
This might not be so obvious for people who don't know the full history of the labor movement in America. The AFL-CIO backed the Vietnam War. Why would U.S. foreign policy improve if the labor movement had more power?
But the labor movement that existed in the early years of the Vietnam War was a historical anomaly that didn't drop down from the sky. It was the product of a deliberate government and employer campaign after the Second World War to destroy the most progressive wing of the labor movement. A key motivation for that campaign of destruction was removing domestic political obstacles to foreign military and economic policies the U.S. government intended to pursue, policies that weren't in the interests of the majority of Americans.
Prior to the purge, there was no boundary between the labor movement and what we know today as the peace and international solidarity movements. Saul Alinsky described the labor movement scene in the thirties this way in his 1971 book "Rules for Radicals":
"The agendas of those labor union mass meetings were 10 per cent on the specific problems of that union and 90 per cent speakers on the conditions and needs of the southern Okies, the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigade, raising funds for blacks who were on trial in some southern state, demanding higher relief for the unemployed, denouncing policy brutality, raising funds for anti-Nazi organizations, demanding an end to American sales of scrap iron to the Japanese military complex, and on and on."
The labor movement that exists today may be a far cry from your grandfather's labor movement that existed in the 1930s. But it's also a far cry from your father's labor movement that existed in the 1960s.
Part of the ferment in America's labor unions that led to the election of John Sweeney as President of the AFL-CIO in 1995 was longstanding anger at the previous AFL-CIO leadership's relationship to anti-worker U.S. foreign policies - ineffective opposition in some cases, active collaboration in others. There was a lot of outrage at the failure to effectively fight the anti-worker NAFTA agreement. But that was just the most prominent among a list of grievances relating to U.S. foreign policy.
Since Sweeney's election, opposition to anti-worker U.S. foreign policies has been more vigorous. In 1997 - under Clinton - organized labor and its allies defeated the renewal of "fast-track" authority to negotiate anti-worker trade agreements. Today the labor movement is at the center of efforts to block the anti-worker Colombia trade agreement. And immediately after taking office, Sweeney shut down parts of the AFL-CIO's international apparatus that had supported brutal anti-worker U.S. government policies overseas, including the CIA-linked AIFLD.
In January 2007, President Sweeney denounced President Bush's proposed military escalation in Iraq. In March 2007 the General Executive Council of the AFL-CIO called for the end of the U.S. military occupation of Iraq and a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. The AFL-CIO statement played a significant role in aligning Democrats in Congress in favor of a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. And the insistence by Democrats in Congress - especially presidential candidate Barack Obama - in favor of a timetable for withdrawal decisively strengthened the hand of the Iraqi government in successfully demanding a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq from the Bush Administration.
The internal struggles over the U.S. labor movement's foreign policies are by no means over and likely never will be. But the direction of motion is towards an American labor movement that increasingly opposes foreign military and economic policies that are against the interests of the majority, increasingly challenges anti-worker institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and increasingly supports international solidarity to lift up workers around the world. And a dramatic expansion in the ranks of organized labor in America - which will disproportionately pull in the most disadvantaged sectors of the labor force, including recent immigrants who maintain links to their former countries - will help keep organized labor moving in a progressive direction on foreign policy. That's why Americans who want to end U.S. foreign policies based on war and corporate domination - and who want to enact policies based on peace, economic development, and diplomacy - have a big stake in the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
Have you spoken up yet? You can add your voice here.