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Should unions tell Dem. Party: “you’re with us or with Chamber of Commerce”? Paul Jay with Philip Dine

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re in Washington, DC. And joining me again is Phil Dine. He’s the author of State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence. Thanks for joining us. So in the first part of our interview we talked a bit about the problem of the lack of political influence of the unions, and a little bit about the difference between European unions and American unions. In your book, you talk about European unions being more willing to talk about radical reform or radical changes in the European political system. I mean, how successful they are with that’s another question, but they talk about it, where the American unions, certainly the majority of unions, don’t really have even that discourse. What I’m asking is: doesn’t it need some of that discourse and to actually go out and build some support for that amongst your membership, for the possibility of being able to say to the Democratic Party one of two things: either, one, if you keep playing this game with us that we get you elected and afterwards you do next to nothing—? I mean, how many Democratic administrations have not touched the Taft-Hartley Act? How many Democratic administrations have there been without a law like EFCA to help promote unionization? I mean, it’s not like the Clinton administration did so much on any of these issues.

DINE: Sure.

JAY: So, one, don’t they need to be able to say, “We’d rather stay home than keep playing this game next time there’s an election”? And/or, two, have an independent enough force to actually fight for control of the Democratic Party?

DINE: Oh boy. I mean, yes and no. I think that they need to be more independent and they need to threaten not necessarily to stay home, but to even support a liberal. Back when I was growing up, there were lots of liberal Republicans in this country. I mean, now it sounds like another century, which it in fact is. But there are lots of liberal Republicans who—Jacob Javitz of New York, even Rockefeller [inaudible] Massachusetts, who were solidly pro-union and had union support, and just tended to be more conservative, say, on balancing budgets. But on social issues, and especially on labor support, they were every bit as strong as Democrats. I think—.

JAY: Or every bit as weak.

DINE: Right. I don’t buy that labor needs to—in order to threaten, you know, to stay home or support somebody else, I don’t think labor needs to be more radical [inaudible] the reason, parenthetically, the reason I don’t think that works is because—you mention Europe. In Europe you have a whole structure, a whole culture. You don’t just have socialist unions: you have socialist parties; you have communist parties; you have leftist parties.

JAY: Yeah. I’m not [inaudible] suggesting you can reproduce [inaudible]

DINE: [inaudible] You can’t do that.

JAY: But there is a real fight here, and the unions need to be able to say to the Democratic Party, it’s either—you know you’re either with us or you’re with the Chamber of Commerce, like, on health care, on EFCA, on real issues, every issue by issue there’s a war going on. The Chamber of Commerce is mustering millions and millions of dollars, massive amounts of television advertising, tons of money on lobbying in Congress. There’s a war there. And right now you have an administration that seems more concerned to appease the Chamber of Commerce than to appease labor. So how does labor flip that?

DINE: Labor flips that by a couple of things. One is it does what—in my view it does what we just talked about before the break: it stops being a dependable, reliable, consistent logistical ally during elections of Democrats. Instead, it campaigns, it puts its own issues into the public realm, and it makes the Democrats or Republicans support those issues.

JAY: But no Republicans.

DINE: Fine. Then—.

JAY: The rarest exception’s going to support an EFCA, or even a public option in health-care plan. So—.

DINE: Republicans aren’t going to do that by themselves, and neither are Democrats, to the extent necessary. What has to happen is labor—and here we get into something broader. Labor needs to—if there’s an institution in this country that does a worse job telling people what it’s all about and communicating its message than labor, I don’t know what that would be. And that’s about what a lot of [inaudible] labor needs [inaudible] forget for a minute the politicians. Labor needs to tell average Americans why the labor movement is important. The reason we’ve had economic prosperity and political stability for decades in this country is in large measure due to our industrial relations system, which has brought all parties together. The last 20 years, that’s been completely imbalanced, because labor’s been marginalized, corporations have been ascendant, and government’s been fronting for business interests. That produces the skewed public policies and private practices that people are suffering from now. The problem for labor is that people aren’t connecting those dots between the decline of labor and what’s happening to them, their families, their neighbors economically. Labor needs to connect those dots so people will understand why it matters that labor’s been marginalized, why we need an Employee Free Choice Act, why we need a robust labor movement.

JAY: Well, why are they so lousy at this?

DINE: Oh, boy.

JAY: They got the money.

DINE: They’re lousy at that for a couple reasons. First of all, it’s not just labor; it’s the whole labor-media relationship. The media do an abysmal job covering labor. We have almost nobody covering labor, so our coverage is scarce. It’s sensationalistic. It’s all about strikes, fraud, corruption, violence. And then even the terms we use—why don’t we talk about labor bosses and corporate executives, when labor, quote, “bosses” are the only elected ones [inaudible] can’t hire and fire? You know, why don’t we talk about a labor dispute when it’s a labor-management dispute? If we’re going to shorthand it, call it a “management dispute”. Why do we always say in terms—in a strike or shutout, labor’s demanding something and the companies are all—why don’t we switch that around?

JAY: And let’s be clear that most of the people writing these stories are in unions.

DINE: Exactly.

JAY: A lot of them are in unions.

DINE: Exactly right. Exactly right. So it is not what labor think. Labor sees that stuff, and labor said, “Oh, these guys are biased.” They’re not biased. The average reporter is in a union.

JAY: He’s probably in the Newspaper Guild.

DINE: He’s probably in the Newspaper Guild.

JAY: He or she’s in the Newspaper Guild.

DINE: Exactly. Exactly. He comes to work, tries to not miss a story, tries to get through the day. They’re not looking to screw working people, ’cause they are, in a sense, working people. What they do is—and here’s where you get into the—labor spends too much of its time cataloging these sins of the media, talking about low hanging fruit, and far too little time doing what it needs to do. And in my book I have a whole chapter about the kind of humorous—you know, how I found myself on rooftops almost getting pushed off a rooftop by autoworkers who didn’t like what I’d been writing, or getting, you know, door shut, phone slammed, you know, trying to cover labor. Labor does an abysmal job promoting itself, just like the media do covering it, and together there’s a vicious cycle. Labor sees this treatment, and it says, “Why bother talking to these guys?” Editors see that, and they say, “Yeah, I’m right—this is a fading movement. We can’t get stories. So let’s not assign—let’s assign fewer people.”

JAY: I think these problems are connected with each other. As long as the leadership of the labor movement is so predictable politically—. The way the media in this country works is all about power and all about who might influence who gets power. And if somebody’s completely predictable—like, who’s being talked about now in the Senate? Well, Lieberman. One guy. It’s not because Lieberman’s so significant. He’s affecting some real thing that has to do with power. Otherwise, he would be as anonymous as everybody else in the Senate is right now. The union leadership are just so predictable ’cause they won’t threaten to withdraw their support.

DINE: I think you’re entirely right. [inaudible]

JAY: So it’s not a story.

DINE: Exactly. Exactly. You know, as a reporter, you’re put to sleep by the daily or weekly press release that John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO formerly, used to put out, blasting the weekly or monthly unemployment figures under George Bush. Talk about predictable. Nobody in the history of American journalism has ever used one of those things.

JAY: And the other thing I find striking is—I can’t remember the exact statistic, but apparently unorganized workers, if you asked them, “Would you like to join a union?” it’s something like about 54-55 percent say “yes”.

DINE: That’s right.

JAY: How is it possible it’s not 80 percent say “yes”? How is it possible that when anybody who would look at the—you know, unionized workers have better wages, they have pension plans, they have all kinds of things that unorganized workers don’t, and it’s only about 55 percent saying “yes”?

DINE: Well, first of all, that’s a pretty darn high percentage, because the anti-union forces, which would have you believe that nobody wants—that even the 12 percent that are in unions don’t really want [inaudible] and nobody else wants [inaudible]

JAY: Yeah, let’s just remind everybody watching, ’cause most people who don’t follow this issue don’t know: private-sector unionization about 7.2 percent of the workforce; public maybe 11 percent.

DINE: Well, public’s higher, and so the average is—if you put two together, it’s 12.5 percent.

JAY: Right.

DINE: So you’re exactly right. But the point is that most workers, whether it’s 53, 83, whatever, most workers want to join a union who aren’t in a union. And that’s pretty radical. In other words, that means if EFCA were passed, you’d have millions more. If people could join a union without fear of ramifications from their employer, you’d vastly increase the size of the union movement.

JAY: Okay. In a sentence, ’cause we’re running out of time, to a unionized worker watching this, what should he or she do about all this?

DINE: Oh, wow. Try to—well, I—try to get your union to be more—to communicate better, you know, join the local paper, whatever, of the union; try to get your message out; and try to get the union to be the face of the rank-and-file, not a building [inaudible] labor leader, ’cause everywhere I look where unions succeeded against great odds, it was because the rank-and-file were the story.

JAY: There are some great stories of successes of workers in this book. So if you want to—it’s not—this isn’t just about how the unions are failing; it’s also how about some ordinary workers have fought and won. Okay. So—and, two, what do you say to unorganized worker watching this interview?

DINE: Well, if you want to—if you’d like to see your pay increased by about 20 percent, get sick days, get paid vacations, get pensions, you ought to think about forming a union, because that’s why employers are so against having a union, because workers do a lot better.

JAY: That’s what I can’t figure only 55 percent say “yes”. Thanks for joining us.

DINE: A pleasure to be with you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Philip Dine is a Washington-based journalist, frequent speaker on labor and politics, and author of the recent State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence