Labor’s top organizer sees long fight ahead

WASHINGTON – Progressive groups and individuals, including labor, Latinos, African-Americans, women, and students must unite in a years-long campaign to restore and reclaim both workers rights and U.S. democracy, Communications Workers President Larry Cohen says.

Otherwise, the nation will slip under increasing corporate control, he told a May 10 gathering of the Women’s National Democratic Club here. Cohen, in addition to his role as leader of one of the nation’s biggest unions, is also chair of the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Committee.

Cohen lamented the decline of workers’ rights, saying it has led to a situation where unions represent only 6.9 percent of the private workforce, a share lower than when famed labor leader Eugene V. Debs was running the American Railroad Union in 1900.

And without restoration of political rights, workers’ rights will not be restored, said Cohen.

Cohen spoke as the presidential general election campaign launched in earnest, with Obama’s formal announcement the week before and back-and-forth jabs between Obama and presumed GOP foe, financier Mitt Romney. Organized labor has declared for Obama, with formal endorsements and mobilization.

The campaign Cohen described needs to last longer than one election cycle, he warned, estimating it would need at least “seven to 10 years” of concentrated effort. And it would have to go beyond normal party politics, too.

Indeed, Cohen said labor made a mistake after its legions helped vault Obama into the Oval Office and give Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a new term as House Speaker. The mistake was not in helping elect them, he said, but in not keeping up the pressure on the issues important to labor.

As a result, 400 progressive measures – everything from the Employee Free Choice Act to immigration reform – passed the House in 2009-10, and then fell victim to GOP filibusters in the Senate. And in an early 2009 White House meeting, Cohen said, labor law reform in the form of the Employee Free Choice Act was sidetracked “until after they did health care.”

Left in the lurch, labor must campaign for “democracy and economic justice” at the same time, to increase its clout and those of its allies — and keep the drive going between elections, to force lawmakers it elects to approve pro-worker laws, he added.

“The limits of democracy alone have blocked us,” Cohen declared.

Cohen cited a graphic, from a new CWA booklet for the campaign, with a high wall that workers must scale. The high wall that blocks achievement, he said, is built of four things: Senate filibusters, the huge flow of corporate money into politics – “It’s gotten out of hand,” he said – the lack of legalization of immigrants, and voter suppression legislation proposed or enacted in 38 states.

“ALEC and others like it know they can’t win elections unless they shrink the electorate,” he said, referring to the business-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, the secretive author of anti-worker, union-busting, voter suppression and other right-wing laws.

The coalition Cohen envisions is in the booklet, Building A Movement For Economic Justice And Democracy, would have a potential total of 50 million people.

That includes 15 million union members, at least 10 million Latinos, at least 10 million African-Americans, 5.2 million members of progressive women’s groups such as Emily’s List and NOW, four million students, five million senior citizens, and millions of others in progressive religious and community organizations.

“If we can blend together these groups” to fight for both democracy and workers’ rights at the same time, and (sustain it) over a long stretch of years, the effort can succeed, he said. The booklet is being distributed at CWA steward and leadership training classes.

He compared the workers rights/democracy drive to two other successful mass movements. One was the 30-year effort, led by former Brazilian Metal Workers President Luiz Ignacio “Lula” da Silva to build unions there. It eventually led to Lula’s election to the Brazilian presidency – and to cutting poverty by empowering workers to bargain for living wages that let them buy food.

The other comparison Cohen used is the “Arab Spring,” which started with a Tunisian street vendor burning himself to death in protest of his repressive government’s restrictions. It set off popular uprisings, which toppled first that dictatorship, followed by those in Algeria and Egypt. The uprisings continue.

The alternative to such a huge and coordinated drive is dire, Cohen said.

“If we don’t focus on these democracy issues, we’re leading people around and around in a circle, and we’re like Sisyphus, constantly pushing the rock up the hill” only to have it roll back down again, he declared. “But if we can rebuild an offense” on democracy and “a vision to recapture the American dream, then that’s what we’ll come up with.

Photo: / CC BY 2.0


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.