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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Dec 14, 2010, 10:53 am

Sen. Bernie Sanders Stands for Workers on Senate Floor—and Picket Lines

BY Mike Elk

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) railed against renewing the Bush tax cuts for more than eight hours on Friday.   (Image from C-SPAN)

Democrats ignore his example at their own peril

Last Friday, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made headlines across the world by standing on the Senate floor Friday for eight-and-half hours "filibustering" impending legislation extending all the Bush-era tax cuts, and denouncing the special interests that benefit from them. That bold stand likely didn't surprise the workers in Sanders' state. He has been standing on picket lines and in union halls helping workers to organize as elected officials for decades in Vermont.

Sanders has always used the power of elected office to protect workers during union organizing drives, which often involve illegal firings of union activists. Sanders is known for coming to the union halls during union elections and urging workers to join a union. He has called up Vermont employers and threaten to shame them if they engage in illegal firings and management intimidation tactics, which often goes unpunished in the United States due to weak labor laws.

In return for this support, labor stands strongly by Sanders. Thus, he can stand on the floor of the Senate denouncing special interests for eight-and-half hours—without fearing their retribution.

Most Democratic elected officials are reluctant to get involved in union organizing drives in the ways that Sanders does. If they do get involved, it's only symbolic. Few make the repeated, intense efforts that Sanders does to threaten to use the powers of the full powers a Senator has to threaten a company into having a free and fair elections and contract negotiations.

I know this from personal experience while organizing government contractors that worked for Northup Grumman and a number of other contractors for the United States Customs and Immigration Services (UCSIS). In 2008, I was helping organize workers employed at a USCIS Center in California, while another group from the same union was helping organize workers in Vermont. We got very little help from Democratic elected officials in California.

However, Sen. Sanders repeatedly called and wrote the CEOs of these government contractors whenever reports of worker intimidation emerged. Sanders even showed up at a union hall in Vermont and told workers that if he worked where they did he would vote for a union. As a result of Sanders' persistent help, we successfully won four separate NLRB elections and were able to reach a first contact within four months (a record in first-contract negotiations). Without Sanders' help, I don't think we would have been successful.

So few Democratic elected officials give similar help to organizing drives or first-contract negotiations. Democratic elected officials often either seem indifferent to these causes or in some causes don't want to be seen as siding with workers. As a result of the failure of Democrats to help unions both legislatively and through putting pressure on big corporations to allow free elections, unions are losing members at an alarming rate. Unions represent for a mere 7% of the private sector workers, down from a rate of nearly 40% of the private sector in the 1950s.

It's a self-defeating cycle. As a result of the failure of Democrats to help ensure free union elections, Democrats are thinning the ranks of their biggest funder and most loyal constituency—organized labor.

On the other side, Republicans are willing to help the unionbusting forces that fund their campaigns. Just last week, South Carolina Governor-elect Nikki Haley (R-S.C.) announced that a unionbuster, Catherine Templeton, would head South Carolina's labor agency. Haley said Templeton was hired to specifically fight union organizing at a large Boeing plant in North Charleston, S.C.

Haley was quoted as saying: "She knows what it takes to take it on and she understands it's going to be a partnership level that we cannot lose. We're going to fight the unions and I needed a partner to help me do it. She's the right person to help me do it."

Republicans make no qualms about their desire to take on organized labor. Democrats should stand by organized labor as vocally as Republican oppose it. Why? They should learn the lesson of healthcare reform: cutting deals with big corporations does them no good. In the end, the health insurance industry and the Chamber of Commerce spent heavily to defeat Democrats, while only organized labor spent heavily to defend Democrats.

Sanders is likely to become a top target of big corporations as a result of his highly visible stands against legislation benefiting the rich. But he doesn't have to worry about losing his seat, because he has stood so many times with the workers in his state.

If Democratic elected officials wish to remain in power, they ought to follow Sanders' lead, and use the power of their office to help secure free and union elections for all.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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