Thursday, December 28, 2006

Eric Lee on the Edwards campaign

Eric Lee, visionary international labor activist and creator of the invaluable LabourStart website, has entry on his blog about the John Edwards campaign for President. After recommending that unions emulate Edwards use of the internet as an organizing tool, Eric discusses the importance of the Edwards campaign for American unions and the democratic left..

..a running thread in everything I have written for some years now is the question of whether the trade union movement has a future or not. You might be asking yourself what this has to do with the Edwards campaign. The answer is: plenty.

Edwards did not come out of the trade union movement; he made his millions (and they were millions) as a lawyer. He may have had working-class roots, but they appear to be behind him now. And yet in recent years, especially since his defeat in the 2004 elections (when he first ran for the Democratic nomination, and then as John Kerry's vice presidential candidate), he has made a sharp turn toward the unions.

This has been in evidence for some time now, and a quick glance at his activities over the last year or so show that he's been in the thick of the fight against poverty, and helped get several states to enact higher minimum wages than the stingy Republican administration in Washington.

This is great stuff, and combined with his constant appearances at union events and expressions of support for union causes, he did two things this week that cement the bond between John Edwards and the trade union movement.

First, in his two-minute online video, placed on YouTube (where else?), standing in front of a ruined New Orleans house, he spoke about all the great work that's been done – this was at the very end – to organize workers into unions. It was a brief reference, but it was a clear mention of Edwards' strong belief in the positive role of trade unions.

And it gets better. Today, the campaign named its manager, the man who is leading the effort to get Edwards into the White House. That man is David Bonior, a name I've certainly come across as he's also the Chair of a group called American Rights at Work -- an organization that's been around since 2003 promoting its vision of the US as “a nation where the freedom of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively with employers is guaranteed and promoted.”

If this stuff sounds mild to Europeans and others, it sounds positively radical to Americans. The percentage of American workers organized into unions has been plummeting for decades, and is below 10% in the private sector.

Studies have shown that a majority of workers in the US would join unions if they could, but they don't because of a well-grounded fear that they could lose their jobs if they do.

Every day, people get sacked by their employers for trying to join unions. There has long been a corporate reign of terror in the workplace and ever since I've been politically active (this goes back some time) unions have called for changes to the country's laws to make it easier to join unions.

So now we have a presidential campaign boosting a candidate who is the most pro-labour politician in America today, run by a labour studies professor (I'm not making this up) who until yesterday was running a workers' rights organization. This is the kind of politics we haven't seen in America for more than a generation.

It bears comparison to the nearly successful 1934 California gubernatorial campaign by Upton Sinclair, a socialist running as a Democrat, under the slogan “End Poverty in California”. It reminds one of the campaigns of the Socialist Party in its heyday, when Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas could get close to a million votes.

And on a personal level, I'm reminded of a Presidential campaign that was discussed, and then abandoned, by Michael Harrington back in 1978-9. Harrington proposed then to launch is campaign from the ruins of the South Bronx – something echoed by Edwards' decision today to launch his own campaign from still-devastated New Orleans.

None of this means that Edwards is a socialist – far from it. But I mention this to point out that there is a radical tradition in American politics, closely linked to the unions (Debs, of course, was a great railway union leader before becoming a politician). Edwards may well fit into this tradition.

The problem with that tradition is that it never came close to winning the Presidency. That may be about to change.

Today, polls in the state of Iowa, the first battleground state in the long series of Democratic Party primaries and caucuses, show Edwards in the lead – ahead of Hillary Clinton and all the others.

Edwards is running on an explicitly pro-union message, unashamed of his connections to the labour movement in his country. And he's doing so with the kind of website that every union and campaigning organization should aspire to have.

That's why his campaign interests me so much, and why I intend to do what I can to learn about it, report on it, and participate in it.

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