Organizing: The Future of the American Labor Movement

Gerald McEntee

There is no greater goal right now for the American labor movement, and all progressives, than to put George W. Bush out to pasture on his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Indeed, at no other time during my 44 years in labor have I seen members of my union—the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)—nor the House of Labor, more dedicated to getting one person out of office.

And we all know why. Three million jobs lost in three years—the most since the Great Depression: 66 million Americans with inadequate healthcare coverage or no healthcare coverage at all; a median household income that has fallen for three straight years; 3 million Americans who slipped into poverty in 2001; ergonomic rules scrapped; overtime regulations attacked. The list goes on and on.

So, for all of us committed to worker rights and social and economic justice, we must do everything we can to take back America from a president who has spent the last three years dividing our country and taking care of the very rich at the expense of the rest of us.

But those of us within the House of Labor have another responsibility. No matter which candidate wins the 2004 election, and regardless of who controls Congress, to really improve the lives of working men and women, and build lasting power, we must grow our unions by organizing.

That is how we will build real strength in the workplace, at the bargaining table, in the halls of power and on future election days. Growing our unions is how we will build real power for all working families in America. And it is the best way for us to bolster the efforts of the entire progressive community.

The sad fact is that bad employers don’t harass their workers, pay them unfairly, provide them with poor benefits or make them work mandatory overtime based on who is running the country. Bad employers are bad 365 days a year, seven days a week—regardless of who is in office.

Defeating George W. Bush is so important because what we don’t need is for bad employers to expect and receive the support of the president of the United States. Ten thousand West Coast dockworkers can tell you how it feels when that happens. Two years ago, their employer, the Pacific Maritime Association, instituted a lockout after the International Longshore and Warehouse Union requested that any new jobs created by new technology be protected by a union contract.

Instead of allowing the collective bargaining process to settle the dispute, the Bush administration invoked the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act—an action that hadn’t been taken in 25 years and never in a lockout. President Bush’s shameful use of Taft-Hartley sent a message to other employers: When the going gets rough at the bargaining table, the federal government can always step in—to help the boss.

When workers want to exercise their fundamental civil right to organize to bargain and better their lives, the rules should be fair. And they should be fairly enforced by the government. Period.

It is clear that we must defeat George W. Bush. But we must also grow our unions. And whomever the Democratic Party selects as its nominee—AFSCME hopes it is Howard Dean—we must insist that he support a comprehensive social justice agenda, job creation, quality and affordable healthcare for all, the preservation of Medicare and Social Security, civil rights and much more.

And the House of Labor must insist that the next president support an aggressive agenda for worker rights, including real penalties for violators of labor laws, creating a law that will make employers recognize their workers’ desire to form a union, establishing first contract arbitration and giving the National Labor Relations Board the power to enforce laws that protect workers. The next president should also use his bully pulpit to encourage passage of collective bargaining laws for public employees in all the states and localities where workers don’t have this important right.

We will accomplish these goals only by making organizing a top concern throughout the American labor movement and building a stronger, more determined cadre of worker activists. We owe ourselves, our nation and the progressive community nothing less.

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Gerald McEntee is president of the 1.4 million-member AFSCME — the nation’s largest and fastest growing public service employees union.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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