WASHINGTON (PAI) -- The fight against stagnating wages and income inequality will fail unless workers and their allies band together in a mass campaign to fight to reclaim our democracy, Communications Workers President Larry Cohen declares.
In an impassioned speech to the Economic Policy Institute on June 4, Cohen - who has made a Democracy Crusade the centerpiece of CWA's agenda and convinced more than 50 other organizations to sign on - declared that EPI and anyone else could talk all they want about policies to close the income gap between the rich and the rest of us. Talk won't work.
"It's not going to matter one bit (his emphasis) what our policies are if there's not democracy in America," he emphasized. "We have a great policy agenda, but no power to enact it. We have democracy in a trash can."
And one election, even if labor turns out its legions this fall - and Cohen promised CWA will - "won't solve that," he warned.
Officially, Cohen was introducing Obama administration Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, the keynote speaker at EPI's half-day conference unveiling its "Raising America's Pay" campaign to both publish works on income inequality and to push the issue to the forefront of the political discussion - and keep it there. Perez enthusiastically endorsed the effort.
But Cohen used his time at the lectern to describe the state of U.S. democracy, especially after two U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the last four years unleashed a tsunami of campaign cash from corporations and the rich. But it wasn't just those rulings, he said.
"We have 80 years of the court saying 'Corporations are people,' so only in America can you run orchestrated campaigns to destroy working people. That's what gets me mad!"
CWA's multi-pronged democracy campaign has already racked up one big win: Forcing the U.S. Senate to change its filibuster rules and make it simpler to approve presidential nominees. By pressuring senators to cut the number of votes needed to end such talkathons to a simple majority of 51, it achieved a goal of getting a full National Labor Relations Board through, despite GOP obstructionism. Senators also confirmed other key Obama nominees.
CWA's crusade also includes campaigning for a proposed constitutional amendment to allow Congress to regulate campaign finances, to restore teeth to the Voting Rights Act, to enact comprehensive immigration reform and to pass the Employee Free Choice Act - or something stronger - to level the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining. In his speech, Cohen added closing the wage and income chasm to the mix.
All those goals were sidetracked by filibusters, filibuster threats and, now, corporate campaign cash, he declared.
"We won the biggest landslide in years in (the) 2008" election "and we got nothing," he said. "Four hundred items" helping workers passed the Democratic-run House "but never got discussed" in the GOP-hamstrung Senate, he added.
Cohen also drew on history to explain the need for a mass movement for democracy and to close income inequality. He noted that before the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, private-sector union density in the U.S. was 13.3 percent. Now, after a rise to and through World War II and decline since the 1970s, it's half of that. Public sector density is 35 percent.
The mass movement of the 1930s built workers' rights in the U.S., he said. And examples from overseas - Cohen specifically cited Brazil and South Africa - also show mass movements can rebuild workers' rights now.
"When you don't have collective bargaining rights, there's no ability to deal with the tendency that they (companies) are not going to raise wages if they don't have to," he stated. Firms "will take jobs to the lowest wages they can - unless there's a policy to stop them.
"And we don't have a trade policy," Cohen said, referring to the Obama administration's push for fast-track trade authority to jam trade pacts, notably a bad one with Pacific nations, through Congress without debate, worker rights or legislative changes. "We have a foreign policy masquerading as trade policy."
"It's at this point that totally deregulated election spending" comes into the equation to help drive down wages, as politicians kowtow to big donors and firms that lobby to keep pay low, workers down and "free trade" going he said.
The pols, again obeying dollars, also block comprehensive immigration reform. Cohen said that would bring 20 million workers - 11 million undocumented and the rest holding other I.D. - under labor law, not under exploitation. "And there's no path to passing a Voting Rights Act" rewrite, for the same reasons.
"This is not off-topic," he said. "We often get confused between the policy in our head and the democratic mass movement we need to popularize it."
EPI's 3-year "Raising America's Pay" campaign will feature policy papers, the intellectual heft needed for mass pro-wage-growth drives, and efforts to jump-start that national dialogue, Institute Director Larry Mishel said.
Discussion of income inequality "too often sidesteps a crucial component: Wage growth for most workers has been stagnant for the past three-and-a-half decades," he said.
"Raising wages for the majority of Americans who rely on their paychecks to make ends meet is essential to ameliorating income inequality, boosting living standards for the middle class, reducing poverty, and sustaining economic growth. However, wage stagnation is too often credited to forces beyond our control...instead of deliberate policy choices that held down wages even as economic growth and productivity continue to rise."
Photo: May Day Chicago 2014. Earchiel Johnson/PW