CHICAGO - After two years of defending itself against wave after wave of attacks, the labor movement seems to be mounting a full scale counter-offensive this summer.
This Saturday, Aug. 11, as many as 30,000 workers and allies will gather in Philadelphia in the first major activity of the Workers Stand for America campaign. Unions will use the mass gathering to roll out what they are calling America's Second Bill of Rights.
The Second Bill of Rights will be an economic one, listing as rights things like full employment, a living wage, full participation in the political process, a voice at work, quality education, and a secure and happy future.
Perhaps more than ever before the attitude among union leaders and activists is that if there is going to be success in countering the forces that preach austerity, the labor movement itself has to take the lead in focusing the debate on jobs and economic opportunity.
"Economic opportunity is not reaching the vast majority of working men and women in America," said International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers President Edwin Hill. "It is time to refocus the agenda on rebuilding economic opportunity for all."
Tens of thousands in Philadelphia will be asked to sign the Second Bill of Rights which will then be presented to lawmakers of both major parties to add their signatures.
The Second Bill of Rights will be presented to delegates at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions later this summer.
Labor leaders say there is no contradiction between labor's renewed determination to stake out its own independent position and its support for President Obama's reelection campaign.
AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker said unions and "all working families really have two jobs this November. The first is to defeat right wing politicians who want to end collective bargaining rights, who want to keep outsourcing every good job in America and who want to divide and conquer working people."
She noted that the AFL-CIO's decision to deploy 400,000 union volunteers for the election was proof of the labor movement's seriousness in this regard.
"The second job we have," she said, "is to continue to change the conversations In America so that every single elected official understands that the greatest threat to America isn't public debt but economic inequality, that it's political poison to hurt working families and its wrong to support free trade that punishes working people."
Holt Baker said the labor movement will continue putting resources into its own political action committees and programs "instead of just handing those resources over to political parties.
"Only with an independent labor movement can we campaign day-in and day-out for working people," she said. "It will work. We know that working people everywhere are hungry for a national action plan to build prosperity and for the right to be able to bargain collectively for a better life."
Labor leaders from all around the country met in Chicago last week under the banner of Workers' Voice, the new superPAC unions set up in order to compete with the slew of corporate-funded superPACs that came into existence after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.
Presidents of state labor federations and officers in a variety of unions participated in the State Legislative Conference called by Workers Voice. "Since 2010 the attacks on collective bargaining rights and so many of the other attacks on the labor movement have been launched on the sate level," said one participant. "That is why we are going on the offensive here with our own legislation that we want to introduce into state legislative bodies all over the country."
Since 2010 right-wing groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council have written and distributed to state legislators boiler-plate bills that limit collective bargaining and voter rights. Now, partly as a result of the meetings in Chicago last week, there are hundreds of progressive bills drafted and waiting to be introduced into state legislative bodies all over the country. Union leaders present said much of this will be done in 2013.
The bills do everything from defending public workers to creating and keeping decent jobs in the states. They raise revenue through closing tax loopholes for corporations, hiking minimum wages, defending immigrant rights and improving upon the national health reform law.
"The labor movement isn't going to close up shop after the Novemeber election.," said a union leader present. "We'll be more in the public eye in 2013 than ever before."
Photo: Bernard Pollock // CC 2.0