OPINION

We should not minimize the imminent, destructive potential of a second George Bush term.

We as progressives should do some serious thinking and listening about what happened on Nov. 2 and what we should do about it. But there are a few things that occur immediately to me.

Before the election and now after it, I take hope and encouragement from the great energy and activism on our side. I cannot remember a national election where progressives, working people and other average Americans were so engaged and worked together. This energy and action, coupled with so many elements of popular culture speaking out, is a great foundation for a new progressive movement.

It is absolutely essential that progressive leaders and organizers not allow personal disappointment or despair to keep us from continuing to engage and try to move all those Americans who saw George Bush for the reactionary that he is. At the AFL-CIO, we have already begun a discussion about how to nurture and use the infrastructure of our campaign and newly engaged activists.

One lesson I believe we should take from the other side is that values do matter. For the most part, the policies and issues we talk about and advocate emanate from our values. And for many of us, those values come from our faith or our faith traditions.

Our commitment to gay rights and women’s rights comes from our values of justice and freedom and respect for all. Our commitment to racial justice comes from our values. Our commitment to economic justice, especially for working families, comes from our values. Our opposition to the Iraq war comes from our values. Our commitment to the common good and helping the underdog or the oppressed comes from our values — and for many of us directly out of our holy texts.

Though many might scoff, I think there is a neat and convenient intersection where our values and political pragmatism meet. We need an agenda that is big enough that when enacted, it can change people’s lives, an agenda big enough to fight for, that gives real hope. The biggest danger we face is the call for us to follow Bush to the right.

At this intersection of our values and practical politics are universal health care, improving Social Security — not just saving it — so that all Americans can retire with dignity, a global trading system that lifts working families and not just corporations, full-time work for living wages, liberty and justice for all Americans, and the restoration of workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain collectively.

The right to organize and bargain collectively became recognized internationally and domestically as a fundamental human right in the 1930s and 1940s. That right’s codification in this country in 1935 in the Wagner Act led to the creation of the modern American middle class. The evisceration of that right over the last 25 years has contributed greatly to the pressure on and the shrinking of that same middle class.

In independent polling, more than 40 million working people say that they would form a union tomorrow if they had the chance. Imagine if even a fraction of those workers actually were able to form unions. Imagine what a difference that would make in putting working-family-friendly candidates in office, building power in our workplaces, and improving the living standards of our communities.

Unfortunately, when workers do form unions to win affordable health care, job safety standards and a say in their working conditions, employers routinely violate this fundamental human right by using harassment, intimidation, and even illegally firing workers. It has gotten so bad that even Human Rights Watch — an internationally respected human rights organization — called the denial of the freedom to form unions in the United States a fundamental human rights problem.

We need to bring this fight to our communities, and build coalitions to put pressure on employers who frustrate the will of workers when they attempt to form a union. It is critical that wherever and whenever an employer attempts to violate the rights of its workers, a broad coalition of allies is there to hold them accountable. In addition, we need to let our legislators know from both sides of the aisle that they must take a position in support of the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation that would reduce many of the grueling obstacles workers currently face when they seek to form a union. Already more than 208 members of Congress and 37 senators back this worker-friendly legislation.

It is critical that the progressive community takes on this issue as its own fight because it is a comprehensive effort that brings together so many issues important to us: affordable health care, strengthening homeland security, protecting Social Security, addressing poverty, and finding a remedy against all forms of discrimination in the workplace. We must remember that our best defense is a strong offense. Restoring the freedom to form unions ties so many of the issues and values we care about together.

Stewart Acuff is national organizing director of the AFL-CIO. This article is reprinted from the International Labor Communications Association web site, www.ilcaonline.org.

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