Oct. 27, 2004
Kerry’s appeal to progressives is generally thought of as no more or less than the appeal a pumpkin would have if it could run: neither Kerry nor the pumpkin is Bush. I’d like to suggest another reason for progressives to support Kerry, one that does not require holding our noses.
Of course, parts of Kerry’s record are admirably progressive, and – unlike Bush – Kerry has a record of responding to public pressure (itself admirable in a democracy and an indication that we may be able to turn Kerry into someone more worth having elected than he appeared). But, the primary reason we should support Kerry is his position on the right to organize unions.
As the labor movement has declined in this country, so has progressive politics, economic equality, and the ability of working people to find security and advancement. We will not be able to win any of our political goals as progressives without a strong labor movement, and whether we will be able to rebuild the labor movement will be greatly affected by this election. Bush’s National Labor Relations Board has proposed effectively banning card check organizing. The other way to form a union is through an election process that has been rendered largely ineffective by legal and illegal anti-union campaigns. Already 42 million employees who are not represented by a union say they want one but can’t get it. Were the NLRB to rule card check illegal, the right to organize would effectively cease to exist for millions more.
Kerry, is the sponsor, along with Representative George Miller, of the Employee Free Choice Act, which has 36 cosponsors in the Senate and 207 in the House, but which has not been brought to a vote by the current regime. This bill would make acceptance of card check organizing mandatory, would set a time limit for the creation of a first contract once a union is created, and would put significant penalties on companies that fire workers for talking union.
The importance this would have to progressive politics can hardly be overestimated. It is difficult for us to even imagine a United States with a healthy labor movement. A glance across the ocean to Sweden can help. In Sweden over 80 percent of workers have unions, as compared to 13 percent here.
Sweden is not more wealthy than the United States. In fact, in terms of GDP per capita, Sweden is poorer than 48 of our 50 states. But where is the poverty? Why are there no Swedish slums? Where is their illiteracy, their crumbling infrastructure, their lack of health care? Why do we have higher infant mortality and lower life expectancy? Why haven’t they caught up to us in terms of long hours at work without paid vacations? Why are preschool and college available to everyone in Sweden but not here? Why does Sweden have no minimum wage law but a de facto minimum wage more than twice that in the United States?
The answer is not “homogeneity” (i.e. that Swedes are all white). Sweden has about the same proportion of foreign born resident as the United States. The answer is also not the type of jobs. Swedes wash dishes, clean hotel rooms, and flip burgers. And Swedes, even the Swedish left, have embraced free trade and the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs with a consistency that would put George W. Bush to shame. The wages that we associate with various types of work are not determined by characteristics of the work. Rather they are created by relations between management and workers.
The decisive difference between Sweden and the United States is the level of unionization. And not only does Sweden have the world’s highest level of unionization, but it also has what has been called the world’s most independent and vibrant labor media. Sweden’s labor publications rival the commercial media in size, production values and scope of coverage.
Sweden is a different world from the one we live and think in. With a strong safety net, educational system, and health care system in place, and with equitable distribution of profits assumed, Sweden is able to focus on increasing corporate profits as a means toward improving the general welfare.
Sweden even suggests to me that more important in our upcoming presidential election than Kerry’s refusal to oppose free trade may be his energetic support for the right to organize. Under Kerry we will be able to build a movement that goes far beyond Kerry. Under Bush we will be climbing uphill in a wheel chair.
For a portrait of Sweden today on which I’ve drawn, see Daniel Brook’s “How Sweden Tweaked the Washington Consensus,” Dissent Magazine, Fall 2004.