WASHINGTON – The right wing of U.S. politics is not just attacking unions and workers’ rights but the very foundation of our system of government, the U.S. Constitution, says Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
In a provocative keynote address to the American Constitution Society, a group of progressive attorneys – including union lawyers – the veteran lawmaker said recently that the Right’s goal is to create a plutocracy in place of democracy.
“They think our Constitution should be a bludgeon to protect the power of the privileged,” Harkin declared, to applause. Abraham Lincoln, he added, would not like the Right Wing crusade.
“Lincoln called for government of the people, by the people and for the people. This” — the right-wing goal – “is government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations.”
And the right wing has enlisted the judiciary in its crusade, he warned, through appointments to the bench that began with GOP President Ronald Reagan 30 years ago and lasted through both Presidents Bush, he added.
As a result, judges “are not impartial umpires,” Harkin said, citing the words then Chief Justice nominee John Roberts – named by the younger Bush – uttered during his Senate confirmation hearings.
The right wing takeover of the U.S. Constitution appears most clearly in their crusade to curb voting rights and in their campaign to destroy unions and collective bargaining, Harkin, the Senate Labor Committee chairman, explained.
“They consistently challenge the right to form a labor union and to bargain collectively,” he said. The original 1935 National Labor Relations Act cited the Constitution’s clauses about freedom of speech and assembly in justifying the law. Subsequent court rulings upheld labor laws under the Constitutional power the government has “to regulate commerce.”
“At our markup” of legislation appropriating money for the Labor Department and the National Labor Relations Board – which oversees union-management relations for industries except for airlines, farms and railroads – “they offered amendment after amendment to gut the NLRB and the NLRA,” Harkin said of labor’s right-wing foes.
Though the amendments lost, he said, that didn’t stop the right’s crusade against workers’ rights or the Constitution. Supreme Court rulings let firms “blatantly discriminate on the basis of gender and age,” he pointed out, again in violation of equal protection of the laws that is enshrined in the Constitution.
Congress had to overturn those rulings with special statutes, such as the Lilly Ledbetter law restoring the right to sue for pay discrimination based on sex, age, race, disability or other factors.
Those laws were possible until now, but could be repealed, or made dead letters if the Right takes control of the Senate this fall, he warned. Democrats currently hold the Senate 51-47, with two Democratic-leaning independents, but the Democrats must defend 21 U.S. Senate seats, plus both independents, to the GOP’s 10.
And the Right wants “to intentionally paralyze the government so it can’t act,” and then turn government to its own ends, Harkin warned. While the founders who wrote the Constitution in 1787 wanted the government “to address problems affecting the general welfare, like it says in the preamble,” the right “believes the Constitution was designed to protect the survival of the fittest.
“They seem to forget the preamble is part of the Constitution,” Harkin deadpanned. “You know, the part that begins, ‘We, the people…'”
Not only labor is in danger from the right’s anti-Constitutional crusade, the senator warned. With right-wing judges and senators even questioning such basic laws as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, something as simple as “the opportunity for employment, the right to eat in any restaurant, or even to ride a Greyhound bus” is under attack, he stated.
Those rights and others were first enacted in the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, taken away – by Congress, Southern legislatures and the Supreme Court – from 1877 until after World War II, and have been regained legislatively, step by step, since.
The right also reached back to find another way to stop the Constitution, by refusing to staff the government with personnel needed to carry out the law, Harkin warned. He cited the cases of GOP Senate filibusters that have left the NLRB laboring either without a quorum – paralyzing it – or with temporary “recess” appointees.
It all adds up, Harkin warned, to “modern nullification.” Nullification was the doctrine the South used in the 1830s-1850s to first try to block tariff legislation and then to block anti-slavery statutes from being enforced. That and GOP filibusters violate the Constitution, too, he said. “I fought the filibuster, and I will when we debate the Senate rules again, next year,” he promised.
Photo: Stock image of Sen. Harkin. Phil Roeder // CC 2.0