Does All This Political Activity Really Make A Difference?

Charles W. Jones, International President Emeritus

Yes, It Does - That's Why the GOP Is Trying to Silence Our Union's Political Voice

Do you sometimes get discouraged and wonder if all this political activity is worth the trouble? I hear members voice that opinion occasionally. Congress will do what it wants to do, they say. We have no power.

These members are wrong. Workers who belong to unions have a considerable voice. In 1997, we faced numerous attacks on the laws that protect workers' wages, safety protections, and our right to form and belong to unions. In most of these battles, we were successful. We defeated bills intended to end the 40-hour week, cut funding for OSHA and the NLRB, and remove Davis-Bacon protections from some federal projects.

Perhaps the greatest success union workers enjoyed occurred when we stopped Clinton and Gingrich from passing a bill granting the president fast-track authority to expand NAFTA throughout South America.

But the greatest evidence that we still have some political power has come from actions taken by the other side. In 1997, Republicans teamed up with the Business Roundtable, the Right to Work Committee, and numerous other groups and put together $100 million to try to convince the American people that unions should not be allowed to discuss politics. I can assure you, if our political activities were not having some effect, they would not be spending that kind of money to silence us.

If union political activity were futile, anti-union groups wouldn't be planning to spend $100 million to silence us.

Unionized workers are having an impact, all right. And that impact worries those who work against us.

In 1997, Republican members of Congress proposed a bill they called the "Paycheck Protection Act." This bill effectively destroys the ability of unions to play any role in the political process. Often referred to as an effort at campaign finance reform, this bill does nothing to end the abuses of our campaign finance system. Individuals, corporations, and such nonprofit corporations as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Right to Work Committee, and the National Association of Manufacturers would not be affected by it Ð only unions.

In addition to this federal bill, corporations, right-wing foundations, and national anti-union lobbying groups are introducing initiatives and legislation in all 50 states, all designed to limit working families' participation in the political process by singling out unions for burdensome restrictions.

Whose side are they on?

Payroll Protection Act

Backers of these initiatives are being dishonest when they present them. They claim these laws will protect the interests of working Americans. They justify their efforts as campaign finance reform. They claim that unions do not represent the desires of their members.

That's all rubbish, of course. Numerous public opinion polls have shown that the vast majority of union members support our political efforts. These bills do nothing to end the abuses of campaign finance, because they only apply to unions.

In the campaign finance game, labor unions are a drop in the bucket. During the 1996 election cycle, corporations accounted for more than 40 percent of the $1.6 billion raised by political candidates and parties - while unions accounted for less than four percent.

These bills are not an effort to protect your paycheck. They are a cynical attempt to trick workers into giving up their constitutional right to free speech. The people behind these bills know better than most that taking unions out of the political debate will allow them to pass anti-worker legislation with ease.

Unorganized workers simply don't get involved in politics at the level unionized workers do. When it comes to worker protections, unions are the watchdogs, and all workers benefit from our vigilance.

Unions are effective in the political arena because we stand together. The intent of the GOP's $100 million political propaganda campaign is to divide and weaken us, to set our members against each other in a partisan struggle.

Don't be fooled by their disinformation. For union members, politics is nonpartisan. The only criterion we have is that a candidate must support laws that protect workers and their families. Nothing else matters.

When a measure to stifle union participation in politics comes to your state, you must stand up and speak out against it.

If you don't speak out on this issue, you may soon find you are unable to speak out on any political issue.