Square off again Labor federation sees an assault on working families, is fighting back

AFL-CIO, GOP

April 14, 1996|By John J. Sweeney

Why is [Republican National Chairman] Haley Barbour suddenly bawling like a wounded elephant? Why are politicians building a big slush fund to try to discredit labor unions and the people who lead them? And exactly why are the radical Republicans in the House and Senate raising such a ruckus to silence the voices of America's working families and their unions?

Could it be because they have seen the watch fires of a thousand circling camps -- beacons tended by a gathering army of millions of working and retired Americans who are fed up with being mugged at the pay window, bullied in the back rooms of Congress and battered in the boardrooms of our giant corporations.?

The fact is that working Americans are pressured as never before. And labor unions -- virtually the only organizations in this country that expressly represent working families -- are challenged as never before to sound the alarm about the attacks on middle- and low-income wage earners.

That's why America's unions -- on behalf of the AFL-CIO's 13.1 million members and all workers -- have launched an unprecedented effort to spread the word about the assault on the issues that affect our lives and our children's futures. And that, in short, is why conservative Republicans are launching their own effort to discredit and muzzle unions' voices.

Since 1979, real earnings for workers have declined 12 percent. During the same period, the top 20 percent of households grabbed 97 percent of all increases in household income and left middle-income families and the poor to scramble over the remaining 3 percent.

Productivity went up 24 percent and American workers should have been able to enjoy a substantial increase in buying power. Instead, the productivity was converted into increases in corporate profits (up 64 percent between 1989 and 1995) and executive compensation (a 360 percent leap since 1980).

The result is what economist Lester Thurow calls "the largest redistribution of wealth in history without a revolution." The top 20 percent of households in our nation now get half the total income and control 85 percent of the wealth.

America just isn't working for working Americans. They see the stock market going up, corporate profits going up, but their buying power going down. They are working more hours for less pay, and they have little time to spend with their families. They have no money to spend and they are loaded with debt.

Their anger and frustration is exceeded only by anxiety over becoming a victim of downsizing, restructuring, out-sourcing or a dozen other management fads designed by short-term profit-takers and stock manipulators.

For workers at the bottom of the wage scale, the situation is even worse: a minimum wage of $4.25 an hour that has been stuck there for five long years.

You don't have to be an economist or a labor leader or a member of Congress to know this is a prescription for social and economic disaster. What kind of cruel arrogance possesses Newt Gingrich and other leaders of the current Congress?

Did they think they could, with impunity, steal even more from the tattered pocketbooks of workers and their families and transfer it to the already bulging purses of the rich?

Workers and their families deserve a labor movement willing to respond with energy and passion even stronger than the virulent attacks on our lives. That's why I ran for president of the AFL-CIO and that's why our unions have decided to lead the revolution Lester Thurow noted is so conspicuously missing.

Recently, the AFL-CIO held its first special convention in history. Nearly 600 delegates representing our members voted to assess their unions a total of $25 million to fund an unprecedented education, training and mobilization campaign around the issues that affect workers' lives and their children's futures.

These funds will not be used to make contributions to federal or state candidates or political party committees. And these funds will not come from higher member dues: They will come from unions devoting a larger portion of their existing budgets to political education.

In fact, unlike in the case of other democratic organizations, existing federal law guarantees that no member can be required over his or her objection to financially support union political efforts. Thus our efforts will not be funded with "compulsory" dues payments in any way.

We will use the money to implement a strategy that has too rarely been used in American politics: We will use it to tell the truth.

We will tell the truth about corporate executives who use downsizing and layoffs to trigger windfalls of personal wealth at the expense of hard-working employees and the communities in which they live.

We will use the money to tell the truth about members of Congress who voted to tear the heart out of Medicare, Medicaid, education and college loans in order to finance another tax cut for the rich.

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