Open Letter to America's Unions on

the Elections

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 commitments.

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 interest.

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.

In solidarity,

Michael D. Yates

Michael Yates is a long-time labor educator, radical economist, and contributor to Monthly Review.

Discussion List Issues: Debating Differences Between Vietnam and Iraq (1) Debating Differences Between Vietnam and Iraq (2) The Present Crisis of US Imperialism Is Marxism Still Relevant? (1) Is Marxism Still Relevant? (2) Is Marxism Still Relevant? (3) To join our discussion list, go here Join Our Info. List:
Search Site
Our Links


Monthly Review

Z Net

Marxism List

Stan Goff's Blog

International Socialist Review

Brings the Troops Home Now

Critical Montage Blog

Dissident Voice

Seven Oaks

Against the Grain

Global Resistance Network

Electronic Intifada

Electronic Iraq

Press Action

Left Turn

Green Left Weekly


Traveling Soldier

Radical Activist Network

League of Independent Voters

Labor Net

Labor Notes


New Left Review


Illegal Voices

Clamor Magazine

Jews Against the Occupation

Democracy Now

Committee for Social Justice in Columbia

Venezuela Analysis

Act Against War

New Spark Productions

Socialism & Democracy

Environmentalists Against War

Earth First

Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and Environment

Rainforest Action Network

Food First

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

Free Higher Education