Open Letter to America's Unions on
An Open Letter to the AFL-CIO, Member Unions, and All Union Members
-by Michael Yates
Dear Brother and Sisters,
As it does every four years, organized labor is pumping tens of
millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours into electing the
Democratic Party candidate for President of the United States. Four
years ago it was Al Gore; this year it is John Kerry.
I understand the desire of organized labor to defeat George W.
Bush. The Bush administration has been a disaster for working men and
women. It has overseen a moribund economy, the continuing destruction
of U.S. manufacturing, a staggering loss of jobs, declining real wages,
growing inequality in wealth and income, an increase in the rate of
poverty, a health care catastrophe, loss of pensions by workers,
intensifying antagonism toward unions not just by private employers but
by the federal government itself, the acceleration of environmental
destruction, the loss of our civil liberties, intensifying racism, and a
ruinous war in Iraq. As Kerry put it, “Can we stand four more years?”
And yet, much as I understand the desire to unseat Bush, something
bothers me about labor’s support of Kerry. It seems to me that when so
much money and time are given to a candidate, something ought to be
demanded of that candidate in return and it ought to be clear in
listening to the candidate speak that he or she understands that debts
are owed and will be paid. Perhaps I have missed something, but I have
not seen this. Organized labor seems to be content to give and give and
give without conditions, and Kerry seems willing to take without
Of course, Kerry has said some things that workers want to hear,
although he almost always refers to workers as the “middle class.” He
is concerned about the outsourcing of jobs and promises to end tax
loopholes which encourage it. He wants to repeal the tax cuts the
richest one percent of taxpayers were given by Congress under Bush. He
wants to raise the minimum wage. His health plan is far superior to
Bush’s. He is opposed to privatizing social security. (Though he hasn’t
said that there is nothing at all wrong with the social security system;
it doesn’t need to be fixed). No doubt, if he is elected he will
appoint at least marginally better judges than has Bush, and he will put
more labor-friendly people on the National Labor Relations Board and in
the various agencies that deal with worker issues. He may support some
changes in the labor laws. These are important matters, and their
significance cannot be discounted.
However, there are things Kerry has said and others he hasn’t said
that are troubling. Let me list a few of these and then pose a question
to the AFL-CIO leadership and all leaders and staff of the member unions:
—Kerry has been publicly silent about the precipitous decline in union
membership and the weak labor laws and poor enforcement of existing
labor laws that are in considerable part responsible for this decline.
Not once in the debates did he suggest that strong unions are good for
the nation, a position for which there is plenty of evidence. Not once
did he chastise corporations for routinely and egregiously violating
workers’ legal rights. He might have noted the corporate attack on
union pensions and retiree health care, but he did not. Never did he
mention the Bush administration’s union busting in federal government
workplaces nor criticize its overall anti-union actions.
—Kerry has not said much that will comfort minorities, people who will
have to be the heart and soul of any upsurge in the labor movement. He
supported Clinton’s abolition of the welfare system, a system which,
with all of its inadequacies, disproportionately benefitted minorities.
He supported Clinton’s draconian crime bills, which have helped to
make the United States the world leader in persons in prisons, both in
absolute numbers and prisoners per capita. Half of the more than
2,000,000 persons in prisons and jails are Black. Hispanics and
American Indians are also grossly over-represented. How can these
numbers reflect anything but the most insidious kind of racism? Yet, I
haven’t heard a word from Kerry about this national disgrace. But I
have heard him demand a lot more police. Kerry hasn’t spoken about
public employment, except to say we need more soldiers. However, public
employment has been one sure road to economic advancement for
minorities. The continuing gutting of U.S. manufacturing by corporate
America disproportionately harms minorities as do the various trade
agreements signed or in the works, and as do the WTO, the World Bank,
and the IMF. Yet Kerry doesn’t offer workers much here except more
corporate tax breaks.
—Kerry does not appear to have a plan to get U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Ominously he has called for more troops and says we have to win the war.
I don’t know what he means by “winning” this unwinnable war. But I do
know that more troops will mean more deaths, mainly of Iraqis but also
of U.S. soldiers. And if Kerry turns out to be like that other liberal
president, Lyndon Johnson, who also talked about winning a war, we are
all in a lot of trouble. More soldiers, more body bags, more maimed
veterans, more civilian casualties, less money for vital social programs
here, less patience for dissent, and a tougher time all around for
U.S.(and Iraqi) workers.
Now it may be that once Kerry becomes president, he will surprise
me and make the country a better place for working men and women. Some
suggest he will be like FDR. Film maker Michael Moore tells us that he
thinks the young anti-war Kerry is still inside the mature U.S. senator.
These seem dubious propositions. FDR faced the worst depression in
the nation’s history and grassroots revolts all around him. And a lot
of water has flown under the bridge since Kerry’s antiwar days; he
hasn’t shown much of a propensity to rock the boat since then.
So, if a Kerry presidency is to be a good one for the working
class, organized labor will have to put Kerry’s feet to the fire. You
will have to insist that he move to the left. And if he does the kind
of things Clinton did (NAFTA, welfare “reform,” crime bills, etc.), you
will have to oppose him, in no uncertain terms. When he is attacked by
the right, as he surely will be if he tries to do anything at all
progressive, you will have to refuse to compromise principles, demanding
that he follow through on his promises and do a lot more besides. You
will have to stop being satisfied with crumbs from the table. And to
make your position loud and clear, you will have to build labor movement
worthy of the name. Because only this can force Kerry to act in labor’s
Let me conclude by saying that I write as a long-time union member
and ally of the labor movement. I have belonged to the American
Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, and the
United Auto Workers. I was for a short time on the staff of the United
Farm Workers. I am currently a member of two UAW locals. I have been a
labor educator since 1980 and have taught thousands of union members, in
venues large and small. I have helped to organize workers, both in my
own workplace and others. I have written many books and articles
supportive of the rights of workers and have devoted a good part of my
working life to supporting organized labor.
Michael D. Yates
Michael Yates is a long-time labor educator, radical economist, and contributor to Monthly Review.