Labor and democracy: Why is ALEC attacking labor?

Have you met ALEC yet? ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council. Basically it is one of the main ways big business drafts legislation for its “friends” in state legislatures to pass. ALEC’s private sector board of directors reads like the “Who’s Who” of big business. If you really want to get to know ALEC, read the American Association for Justice’s report here.

ALEC operates as “the ultimate smoke-filled back room,” to quote the report. ALEC is a key way that rightwing corporate interests buy and influence state legislators. Outfits like the notorious Koch brothers, and others like big oil, big finance, big pharmaceutical and big tobacco pay for ALEC meetings and conferences, where they present arguments and model legislation to friendly (bought and paid for) state lawmakers. These conferences most often include lavish accommodations, the best food and drink and expensive golf outings.

Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO president, spoke about ALEC and the Koch brothers in his recent Press Club address. He spoke of them as threats to worker’s rights and democracy. He pointed to their roles in developing the ongoing attack on public workers.

In 2009, 862 ALEC-crafted bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country and 115 of them were adopted. What kind of legislation does ALEC champion? It has long been the incubator of legislation to try and discredit climate change science for big oil. Behind the scenes, ALEC also helped lead the corporate push to poo-poo the cancer-causing effects of tobacco products. For the big banks it came up with schemes to force seniors to accept reverse mortgages in order to qualify for Medicaid.

But direct corporate interest legislation is not their only product. Besides the current storm of anti-public worker legislation, they also develop legislation to suppress voter registration and turn out anti-immigration legislation, anti-gay marriage legislation, anti women’s health legislation and many other undemocratic measures. Big on their 2011 agenda is also state level attacks on federal health care reform.

In fact, ALEC’s work is pretty much an all out assault on democracy. Yes, almost all of their proposals work to fatten their corporate sponsors’ bottom lines: Profits before people. But ALEC’s model legislation is also about control and power.

That’s a general idea that most union members who have been forced out on strike know firsthand. With what companies lose in lost production, sales and profits, many strikes cost them more than they would have had to pay if they had just agreed to union negotiating proposals. Some of the fiercest corporate resistance has to do with work rules and union rights. Many non-union companies are willing to pay wages and accept working conditions that match union contracts just to avoid worker’s organization.

Case in point: Pubic workers in Wisconsin were willing to meet Gov. Scott Walker’s demands on pensions and healthcare costs. That was not really the point for the Governor and the Republican legislature. More important for them was an end to the right to collectively bargain – that is, a voice on the job.

Why? Because giant corporations fundamentally want dictatorial powers. They abhor the idea of employees having any, even a limited, voice on the job. But the corporate elite’s undemocratic appetites go far beyond union workers. They can’t abide any democratic resistance to their economic or political goals.

ALEC is mainly a partisan political organization. Not political party partisan, ALEC includes mostly Republicans, but accepts Democrats willing to push their agenda. Legislation is just one of its products.

ALEC is mostly in the business of consolidating right-wing corporate political power. ALEC champions racist, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-gay legislation because it serves to weaken working class unity. Unity is a central component of working class resistance to attacks on democracy. ALEC focuses on budget and tax legislation not only to cut their own taxes, but also to disempower working people through economic crisis and poverty. ALEC would “shrink government to the size that can be drowned in a bathtub.”

So why the big ALEC target on unions? Even with the small percentage of workers in unions, unions are still basic organizations of the working class. Unions have resources and effective organized people power far beyond their relative size. For instance, unions are organized in every state of the union. They have organization in every big city and in most towns including in many rural areas. Unions are one of the most inclusive and diverse organizations of the working class – in membership and leadership.

And, very importantly, organized labor has increasingly focused on being a voice for all of the working class – multinational, multiracial, male and female, young and old, gay and straight, middle class and poor, union and non-union. Labor is critical in building the biggest, broadest possible people’s coalition that can actually resist and reverse corporate America’s grab for power and profits before people.

Image: Scott Marshall/PW


Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.