You can't be a progressive unless you're pro-labor.

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

It's become fashionable among some self-styled progressives to be disdainful of organized labor's involvement in politics.

You needn't look any further than Willamette Week's endorsement issue. WW took at least a half-dozen swipes at organized labor -- praising Democrats who were "independent" of labor, and popping Democrats who "snagged all the major union endorsements."

Or take a look at Steve Duin's column in the Sunday Oregonian - in which he complains about "the conspiracy of organized labor to maintain its death grip on power in this state" and claims that he has "begun to wonder what the unions are fighting for other than salary increases and to keep their timid stewards, the Democrats, in the catbird seat."

To Duin's credit, he asks Steve Novick about the question - and Novick gives a great answer: "Yeah, the unions are part of a conspiracy. A conspiracy to protect Oregon from Sauron." Sauron, of course, is the dark lord from The Lord of the Rings - and a great nickname for Bill Sizemore.

Listen up. You can't be a progressive without being pro-labor.

The good folks of organized labor are the only people putting substantial and sustained resources into fighting for progressive policies.

If we didn't have organized labor fighting for progressive policies and Democratic candidates, we'd have lost the battle long, long ago. There's vastly more money flowing into our politics from anti-progressive mega-corporations who want nothing more than to profit as much they can while shoveling all costs and risks to taxpayers.

For example, here in Oregon, a recent study by Democracy Reform Oregon showed that from 1997 to 2006, businesses spent over $111 million lobbying our Legislature - while organized labor spent only $8 million. And that's while the Republicans controlled the Oregon House! (Sidenote: it'd be nice to know how much of that "business" lobbying was from out-of-state companies.)

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not a "labor does no wrong" pollyanna. Like any organization governed by actual humans, labor unions and their leaders can make mistakes and errors in judgment.

But let's also not pretend, as Duin does, that organized labor is working exclusively on self-interested projects. Unions often work to advance social goals that neither help create new members nor build political power for themselves. In fact, they regularly do the opposite.

For years, one of the great achievements of organized labor has been the effort to protect and expand health care benefits for their members. If we get universal health care in this country, it's highly likely that individual union members will pay more and get less than they get under their current negotiated contracts. Not only that, but the labor unions themselves will see a reduction in their own power. After all, if you can get health care without being unionized, that's one less reason to create or join a union.

And yet, everywhere you turn, it's organized labor that's leading the grassroots fight for universal health care.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, it was fashionable to claim that one was "socially liberal, but fiscally conservative". I remember a friend who asked another friend, rather heatedly, "What the hell does that mean? Does that mean you're for public education or against it? Does that mean you're for universal health care or against it? Does that mean you're for job training programs or against them? You can't be in favor of important social programs but against spending the money to fund them!"

By a similar token, you can't be a progressive and be anti-labor. It is organized labor that makes progressive politics possible.

And anybody that pretends otherwise is fooling themselves.

Comments

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    [Full disclosure: My firm built the website for the Oregon AFL-CIO, but I speak only for myself. I am also a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981.]

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    One more thing that didn't really fit anywhere above.

    When Duin calls the Democrats "timid stewards", I don't have the foggiest damn clue what he's talking about.

    I can appreciate his impatience with dramatic progressive change - I share it - but it's worth remembering that Karen Minnis and the right-wing gang controlled the Oregon House for 16 years... and we've only had it back for one legislative session.

    And from where I sit, the Democrats advanced quite a bit of progressive legislation in those six months with a one-seat majority.

  • Jiang (unverified)
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    Agreed. That is "new labour" mumbo jumbo that labor is optional/a drag.

    That said, you don't have to be pro-union to be pro-labor! Maybe I'd be less anti-union if I encountered them anywhere but State gov. proud of not being responsive, or cops armed to the teeth ready to kill you, or a Tri-Met driver, sitting for 2 hours at the end of a route defrauding the public and Tri-met.

    Could some one give me an example of a union that hasn't become worse than the problem it addressed? That's the cross-talk you're hearing from progressives. Don't think it's a lack of support for labor.

  • Golpe (unverified)
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    Do you meant that a person should be generally supportive of labor? I have no problem with union activity, but I've seen the interests of certain unions that are definitely at odds with other progressive interests. Unions themselves are important, but too much self-interest isn't productive for society as a whole.

  • sharonabd (unverified)
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    How is a union about self-interest? How have they made things worse?? The history of organized labor in this country is much like the history of universal suffrage- bloody and dotted with human bondage. How are we WORSE off having laws against child labor, hazardous conditions, and For standardized wages and hours for workers? None of these rights would have happened without organized labor unions. Those who don't understand labor history, do a little research. Think about how much power employers have over our lives. And how much worse it could be. I kind of think you do need to be pro-union to be pro-labor.

  • Law-n-Order D (unverified)
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    The universal health care movement while maybe started by unions, will ultimately be pushed through by businesses since many employers can not afford to pay their employees' health care now. It will be interesting to watch some unions' reaction once the realization arrives that universal health care will likely be far inferior to what most larger unions have bargained for their employees . Watch how "progressive" the union bosses will be then.

  • Robert G. Gourley (unverified)
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    As run today in Corvallis' Gazette-Times:

    Anti-union forces are aligned against Merkley

    I’m really sick and tired of the ad being run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce against Jeff Merkley, Democrat candidate for U.S. Senate.

    There’s no doubt why the Chamber is against Jeff: It’s because they're also against the Employee Free Choice Act.

    Under the Employee Free Choice Act, if a majority of workers sign a card indicating support for a labor union, the employer would have to recognize that labor union so long as it is certified by the labor relations board; labor disputes can be submitted to binding arbitration; and workers cannot be fired for labor union activities.

    Obviously those wishing to maintain workplace dictatorships would be against such a law.

    And that’s just exactly the case when it comes to the Chamber, despite claiming leadership in a so-called “Coalition for a Democratic Workplace” there’s nothing in their proposal involving workers democratically running the workplace. Obviously the Chamber expects U.S. workers to be stupid enough to believe the Chamber has any desire for democractically run workplaces. Don’t fall for their phony message.

  • Law-n-Order D (unverified)
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    sharonbd wrote: The history of organized labor in this country is much like the history of universal suffrage- bloody and dotted with human bondage.

    While not unionized as that term was defined in the 1880s, Labor has not always been at the forefront of morality:

    1) Labor was anti the emancipation of slaves during the Civil War because of the fear of free blacks lowering wages.

    2)Most unions were not all that excited (before World War II made it necessary) to have women in the workplace competing with men.

    3) Let us also not forget the organized crime connection in the mid to middle late 20th century.

    Unions ultimately were positive for our country, but their history is certainly far from tarnished.

  • Robert G. Gourley (unverified)
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    Unions ultimately were positive for our country, but their history is certainly far from tarnished.

    Much in the same sense that, thanks to W, we're all now torturers, so too are labor unions - or workers' corporations - guilty of wrongdoing. But their counterparts in our society, business corporations, can hardly claim to have clean hands. Ultimately we are all responsible for how these corporations behave. So make sure you have a mirror handy as you criticize.

  • Eric Parker (unverified)
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    "Now don't get me wrong. I'm not a "labor does no wrong" pollyanna. Like any organization governed by actual humans, labor unions and their leaders can make mistakes and errors in judgment."

    The Portland Police Union is one of those who make mistakes more that they need to. While many unions are great by keeping management in check and making management be human in thier dealings with the workers, the police union in Portland is over-protective to the point of intimidation - especially to the one who oversees the police. Unlike many unions, there is no give and take with the Portland Police union. Just ask any former Portland police cheif who has made a correct personell decision only to be fired due to the union's intimidation of the mayor to have them removed.

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    Really? Is this post going to be come a catalog of all the times and places when a single union has made some perceived error?

    C'mon...

  • Doug Hendersen (unverified)
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    Newbie question here: So what happens if say, the Police decide to go on strike over a contract dispute?

  • Bob (unverified)
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    Add me to the chorus of people who consider "pro-labor" to be completely different than "pro-union."

    It's not a matter of cataloging places a "single union" has made a "perceived error." It's that far too many unions have made so many errors that are anti-democratic, harmful to society, and fleece both taxpayers and union members.

    We need a new union model in this country -- one that puts the workers ahead of the union. One that encourages innovation, flexibility, and constant adaptation to a changing world.

    One only needs to look at the auto industry to see what happens when a union puts short-term contract benefits ahead of the long-term health of its industry. Retirees get massive pensions while young workers get laid off amidst a corporate culture that can't compete with the rest of the world.

    Unions need to demand seats on corporate boards of directors, and take an active role in keeping their companies healthy, innovative, and efficient. As long as union leaders keep fostering an us vs. them mentality, they'll never be progressive.

  • Paid Pollyanna (unverified)
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    "...I don't have the foggiest damn clue what he's talking about."

    Just one of many things, Kari. Just one of many.

  • sharonabd (unverified)
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    Seriously? You are going to blame the collapse of the United States manufacturing and Detroit auto industry on UNIONS? Somebody bring me some water!

  • Linley (unverified)
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    Piffle.

  • macmccown (unverified)
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    ah ... i just love listening to scabs and their supporters using "progressive arguments" to further their hidden agenda of union busting. whenever i hear ... i support unions/labor but ... i know what i'm going to hear.

    if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck ... it is a damn duck period.

  • pdx lawyer (unverified)
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    Kari,

    I couldn't agree more. However, your post inaccurately states that "The good folks of organized labor are the only people putting substantial and sustained resources into fighting for progressive policies." The trial lawyers have traditionally opened our wallets and supported progressive policies and politicians. Any wonder why there is a sustained attack on us as well?

  • PanchoPDX (unverified)
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    Here's the new divide:

    Secret ballot unionization = Pro Labor

    Peer pressure unionization via card check = Pro Union

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    Why is it that some never question business owners organizing to maximize their profits by restricting competition, as we walk through the doors of our local mall? Yet if a group of us organize to protect our jobs, these same people get all twitchy?

    Is this the same principle as New American Socialism: it only applies to the rich? Are we only allowed to organize to protect our interests ... if we're rich enough?

    Labor Unions: the people who brought you the weekend.

  • Robert G. Gourley (unverified)
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    Here's the new divide

    Here's reality, for those who can handle it, expression of interest, responsibility. The end of idiot rule is on its way - pay attention to who is screeching the loudest.

    There are folks smart enough to know the difference, and it's time to turn governing over to them.

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    PanchoPDX: Peer pressure unionization via card check = Pro Union

    Peer pressure? You make unionization sound like middle-schoolers experimenting with pot.

    Here's the way it really works: when a company sees that its about to unionize, they have a mandatory meeting where the bring everyone in, force them to sit though anti-union propaganda, and then at the end, broadly hint - without actually legally saying so - that they'll shot down the entire place if it goes union.

    In Canada, WalMart followed through on just such a threat - largely because they could.

    Card check unionization allows unions to just immediately start representing their new members. Do it to enough places, and even WalMart will have to buckle.

    Wages, measured in real terms, have been declining since Ronald Reagan took over (despite the brief rise under Clinton in the late 1990s). Unionization is one tool to reverse that trend.

  • Eric Parker (unverified)
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    "Here's the way it really works: when a company sees that its about to unionize, they have a mandatory meeting where the bring everyone in, force them to sit though anti-union propaganda, and then at the end, broadly hint - without actually legally saying so - that they'll shot down the entire place if it goes union."

    I was a temp for a company that did this instead of above: They told the employees that they were, legally, not eligible to unionize because they did not have enough total employees to begin with. This 'law' they were quoting was 'private law' as opposed to the 'public law' that ruled other parts of the company. Any one that desputed that, was quietly fired with 'insubordination' as the cause of the firing.

    I was glad I was a temp.

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    Kari: Really? Is this post going to be come a catalog of all the times and places when a single union has made some perceived error?

    There have been a hell of a lot more than "perceived errors", Kari, and it does no good to ignore the stains on union history. Look back a bit (just before you were born, probably) and look up Joseph Yablonski. Or the Teamsters, through much of the mid- to late-20th century.

    This is not, by any stretch, an indictment of labor or unions, but it does no good to pretend they're above the normal human issues of power and corruption.

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    Listen up. You can't be a progressive without being pro-labor.

    Say it again, brother Chisholm!

    Portlanders are by disposition contrarians, and in our little enclaves of the inner SE and NE, there are a lot of pinko liberals. WW spends too much of its time trying to tweak this demographic in a misplaced sense that it's "edgy." (The wisdom of tweaking the large majority of your readership, and the consequences thereof, is a topic for another post.) I really appreciate the Mercury, which has maintained an unfailing sense of where the edge really is--and they're above attacking working people.

    For some reason, large numbers of Americans have gotten it in their head that unions are an unholy and negative force in the country. These people are ignorant of history. The great strength of the US economy in the first half of the century was built on the back of organized labor. Rather than siphoning off the wealth to the very rich, the workers collected enough to buy cars and houses. This in turn created our huge markets, generating more work and a cycle of prosperity.

    What's really surprising is that in this environment, when the ultra-rich have seized an increasingly huge part of the national wealth and invested it in financial scams, not manufacturing, supposed liberals still finger unions as power brokers. Wages would not have stagnated, and the economy would not be anywhere near as vulnerable, if workers had the right to collectively bargain for their salaries. Instead, just 7% of private-sector workers have union brothers and sisters to protect their interests.

    But yeah, let's beat up the almighty unions. They're the real trouble in this economy.

    Full disclosure: I'm a member and unit rep for AAUP (and thankful as hell for it).

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    The trial lawyers have traditionally opened our wallets and supported progressive policies and politicians. Any wonder why there is a sustained attack on us as well?

    I agree, PDX Lawyer. You bet. And it's true -- you need look only to see who the right-wing and corporate special interests are attacking directly (rather than just attacking the policies they support.)

    I suppose I could have edited the word "only".

  • rural resident (unverified)
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    One of Obama's most urgent tasks will be to change the culture in the Department of Labor and make it a force for energizing the labor movement. He needs to staff key management positions with pro-labor advocates who will level the playing field and promote the growth of organized labor. By liberally (I don't mean that politically, though it fits) interpreting and enforcing the provisions of the NLRA, he can create an environment that allows labor organizations to grow and prosper.

    Although I'm still not completely sold on either Obama or Merkley, one of the best reasons for voting for them is the potential benefits to organized labor. After 30 years of playing defense, it's time for labor to start pushing back.

    Just as it is impossible to be pro-jobs and anti-business, it doesn't make sense for someone to be pro-workers and pro-middle class and anti-union.

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    Regarding the notion that it's possible to be pro-labor while being anti-union, well, that's silly.

    Tim Nesbitt wrote on that topic a few years back. An excerpt:

    You don’t have to be a cynic to recognize that we will never achieve fairness for workers by the invisible hand of a market economy or the gestures of a few good employers. We live in a world in which cutthroat competition motivates employers to drive down labor costs and offers irresistible incentives for the greedy to undercut the good.

    Read the rest. It's good stuff.

  • Jim Oleske (unverified)
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    Cognitive Dissonance

    These two, back-to-back paragraphs in Duin's column simply cannot be reconciled:

    I will happily concede Bill Sizemore does a marvelous impression of the Dark Lord of Mordor and that the unions' financial muscle -- $9 million and counting -- might be all that's preventing the passage of a ballot-measure Balrog that will send all us tumbling into the abyss. But given that the Republican Party in Oregon is in full retreat, I've begun to wonder what the unions are fighting for other than salary increases and to keep their timid stewards, the Democrats, in the catbird seat.

    So, unions are saving the state of Oregon from the "abyss" ... but they're not fighting for anything more than salary increases?

    Come again?

    Of course, even if they were only fighting for salary increases and political policies that help their members, that would be wholly appropriate.

    They are elected representatives of workers -- and in an era of declining real wages nationwide, fighting to improve wages and working conditions is exactly what unions should be doing.

    Duin then slights the Legislature's labor-supported accomplishments in 2007, like payday loan reform and expanded collective bargaining rights, by concluding dismissively, "I doubt that agenda puts to flight the dark things from houseless hills."

    Actually, the dark things invaded the legislature in full force in 2007 to oppose payday lending reform because they were making off like bandits by stripping wealth from working families in Oregon with hundreds of thousands of predatory loans annually. Their defeat was a crushing blow, which was only compounded by their defeat on the collective bargaining card-check bill.

    Duin surely knows that the number one issue for the vested corporate interests is killing card check nationally, and it's hard to imagine how the Legislature could have done anything more directly to strike at the heart of the corporate agenda than passing card check here in Oregon.

    Here's the bottom line on the importance of collective bargaining:

    When America had a strong and broad middle class in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, well over 30% of workers had representation in the workplace through unions. When America had concentrated corporate wealth and record low shares of labor income in the 1920s and the Bush era, under 15% of workers were unionized.

    Duin may dismiss the importance of unions and the fight to restore collective bargaining rights, but history provides working families with every reason to disagree.

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    Unions are extremely important in maintaining our national conscience and standard of living. The largest downsides I've encountered occur when rank and file union membership fails to remain active in deciding the agenda and course of their organizations, and in providing oversight of their elected officers and reps, who are known to look out for the organization or leadership at the expense of the general membership.

    Progressives in elected office should support the broader union agenda as a rule, but those same pols don't do the unions any favors if they instinctively ask "how high?" every time the union tells them to jump. A real friend tells you when you're wrong as well as supporting you when you're right. In Oregon we see unions with enemies, allies, and lapdogs at all levels of government; their independent allies do them the most long-term good.

  • Robert G. Gourley (unverified)
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    When workers have drunk the Koolaide prepared by business corporations about workers' corporations, it's too late to complain about fascism. Thanks to such complicity, the business corporations are already in control - and left with the problem of what to do with such a dumb workforce.

  • Tex (unverified)
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    But then there's all the successful companies (vast majority) who are non union which treat their employees excellent makiing it clear that unions are simply not required to facilitate fair treatment of workers.

    Duin is spot on with the current brand of unions and their mission to keep their status andimpact on politics.

    Having a wife who is a school administrator he's certainly very aware of the adverse impact union influence have on our public school system.

  • Tex (unverified)
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    And, when it comes to "progressives" they are expected to shut up, stay in their place and blindly back all things union.

    Now behave, or else!

    Just have any Democrat speak any ill of union methods or track record and watch them be taken out.

  • Robert G. Gourley (unverified)
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    But then there's all the successful companies (vast majority) who are non union which treat their employees excellent makiing it clear that unions are simply not required to facilitate fair treatment of workers.

    I used to play pool on a regular basis with a bunch of hp workers here in Corvallis - they loved to brag about how well treated they were by their employer. Then hp hit hard times, and these same folks had no say at all about how they were treated. There are folks smart enough to conceptualize, others have to experience to learn.

  • Buckman Res (unverified)
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    ”Listen up. You can't be a progressive without being pro-labor. It is organized labor that makes progressive politics possible.”

    That’s as simplistic a litmus test for progressivism as I’ve ever read! Progressive politics is made possible through the use of critical thinking skills and intellectual honesty when examining an issue, not blind adherence to any political dogma, party, or front group. Labor unions are just as capable of being regressive as any other special interest group.

    Come on K-man, we expect better of you in your posts.

  • Robert G. Gourley (unverified)
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    Labor unions are just as capable of being regressive as any other special interest group.

    This totally ignores the place workers' corporations have in our society when compared with business corporations. Just for a starter, workers' corporations are required by law to be governed democratically, not so with business corporations.

    That statement is the same as saying you can go just as fast on your bicycle as I can on my BMW.

  • Jonathan (unverified)
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    Unions provide a voice to labor. The loss of unions is one of the big factors in our growing income inequality (we are now number 4 in the world). Unions are not perfect, but no human organization ever is. Our capitalist society is built on competition. That is why we have anti-trust laws and should be concerned over the growing consolidation of banks. The fact is that an individual employee has no power to compete with their employer. The union provides a competition between employer and employees, to compete for the right amount of benefits and pay. Without the union, management has no incentive to give up profits and share the success of the business with workers. It still remains true, that in many service and industrial positions, there is excess supply of labor, and therefore, without the union, an employer can go out and hire a cheaper worker instead of raising salaries. Just look at Walmart.

    In response to Detroit failing because of the unions, that is laughable. Detroit is failing because of their failed business strategy. In addition, they struggle because Toyota, Honda, VW, etc, can set up shop in southern states and pay their employees half the rate of their unionized competitors. To me this shows that instead of blaming the Auto-unions, we should blame the lack of unionization of the new autoworkers of Honda, Toyota, etc. The competitive field should be leveled, and to me, that means paying all workers a living, middle class wage, providing health care benefits, and a pension. Then companies can truly compete based on the quality of their product and services.

    Great post Kari. I get tired of the dismissive nature of so many progressives towards unions and labor.

  • PDX Lawyer (unverified)
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    This is a very frustrating eye-opening for me, if only because many of us in the legal field are dealing with the same levels of hostility, indifference and unjustified (as opposed to sometimes justified) suspicion of our trade by erstwhile progressive voters and, sadly, by the people who need us the most. In these comments I see concern trolling and forced false equivalencies. Don't bite the shiny minnow, folks; you too taste good with fried potatoes.

    This is not a game of purity in which we get to choose Mary over Satan on a daily basis. Instead, we are left to choose between imperfect options. I'll choose Labor and the tort system over big business/corporate greed (we both share the same enemy) every time, regardless of my misgivings and concerns with both of the former.

    If you want to see the Democratic party (or any "progressive") party fail, or wuss out and move ever rightward, keep helping to pass anti-union and tort deform legislation. When the money dries up from the unions and the lawyers, you'll have no one left to fight for you.

  • George Seldes (unverified)
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    Um, gee, since Measure 65 is all about limiting the power of working people, this is a funny post ...

  • George Seldes (unverified)
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    By the way, if anyone is interested in some really good, funny/sad, readable books that show how the assault on unions is connected to the assault on the whole progressive agenda, see "Which Side Are You On: Trying to be for labor when it's flat on its back," "See You in Court" and "The Law in Shambles" by Thomas Geoghegan, a labor attorney who got his start representing steelworkers in Chicago.

    The folks who are all "Oh, I'm for labor, I just hate unions" are following in the footsteps of those who used to say "Oh, I'm all for colored people, I just hate those outside agitators in the NAACP, CORE, SCLC etc."

    The right is happy to have individuals opposing them, because then their total dominance over the levers of power is somewhat obscured. What they hate is any institution that serves as a counterweight to their power -- and that would be unions.

  • LT (unverified)
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    Depends on what your definition of "pro-labor" is.

    Union endorsements are not infallible---OEA endorsed both Derfler and Bryant, the authors of the bill which ended teacher tenure in Oregon. It had as much to do with internal union politics as the worth of the candidates being endorsed, and some people never quite trusted OEA endorsements after that. OEA endorses in a convention process, as I understand it. Does that really represent every teacher, or only those who are at the endorsement convention?

    Check out the history of Progressives 100 years ago. Did they support primaries where individuals had the right to choose candidates, or nomination by convention?

    Are people who think for themselves and don't vote straight union endorsements "anti-labor" and thus not progressive?

    I thought progressives thought for themselves and didn't let any big organization think for them.

    Same for the 1984 Presidential Primary when Mondale supporters said "real Democrats" supported Mondale, the union candidate.

    Well, I guess the vast majority (somewhere around 70%) of the 1984 voters in the Oregon Democratic primary were not "real" Democrats, as they chose either Hart or Jackson in that primary.

    I have worked very hard in a number of jobs some people here may not have experienced--substitute teacher, child care (pre-school and school aged), retail sales, product demonstrator, to name a few.

    But if I vote for Measure 65, I am voting to "limit the power of working people"?

    Yeah, right. All "working people" are registered Dem, none register NAV? Do you know that for a fact, George?

  • Logan Gilles (unverified)
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    An excellent post from a fine American.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
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    I think we need a few more trolls, whether blatant wingnuts or concern trolls, telling us that Labor Unions Are Not Perfect. I realize that this is a really, really important corrective action, especially for Mr. Chisholm and the rest of us who have drunk the Obama Koolaid.

    I get so sick of the carping on labor unions, especially public employee labor unions, as to how they've cut cushy deals for their members. This is another routine bit of the GOP Politics-of-Resentment playbook: instead of building a society where EVERYONE has better health care, a better retirement plan, and so on, convince the electorate to resent and attack the people who've been successful at organizing themselves.

    Here's a clue for you all: the walrus was Paul :-) And of course more importantly: The idea of labor unions as the secular anti-Christ has been a routine part of the GOP playbook forever.

    As for Steve Duin's absurd column, let's just say that those of us not inducted into the cult of The Lord of the Rings didn't know WTF he was even referring to.

  • joel dan walls (unverified)
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    Back in the late 80s and early 90s, it was fashionable to claim that one was "socially liberal, but fiscally conservative". I remember a friend who asked another friend, rather heatedly, "What the hell does that mean? Does that mean you're for public education or against it? Does that mean you're for universal health care or against it? Does that mean you're for job training programs or against them? You can't be in favor of important social programs but against spending the money to fund them!"

    YES! THANK YOU!

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    Now don't get me wrong. I'm not a "labor does no wrong" pollyanna. Like any organization governed by actual humans, labor unions and their leaders can make mistakes and errors in judgment.

    Kari: There's a lot to be said for your caveat.

    At the beginning of my career my supervisor sent me to a location where I had to deal with seven union contracts, including my own. In effect, that meant dealing with the members of six unions. Before I left for my assignment my supervisor told me that I would be dealing with the best and the worst of people with most people somewhere in between. He knew what he was talking about so any talk about unions being paragons of virtue or evil is nonsense.

    It is organized labor that makes progressive politics possible.

    There is some truth to that, but the opposite is also true. Organized labor has also supported politicians who were not progressive.

  • mamabigdog (unverified)
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    I've never understood why Oregonians harp on their public employees every chance they get- like they're not allowed to have decent healthcare, retirement or wages. People seem to think that it takes something away from them personally if the person working at the DMV is treated decently or paid fairly.

    Working for the state is no picnic, people. Public employees are subject to wage freezes, hiring freezes which prevent upward mobility, unfair treatment from managers with ego problems (just like in the private sector!), and unsafe working conditions. The unions for state employees work hard to combat all of this, in addition to trying to work with the state to manage the impact of events like our recessionary economy, or improving government accountability.

    I look forward to the day when the electorate is re-educated about the benefits of the unionized workplace in both the public and private sectors. I look forward to the day when a simple card check is the law of the land in every state, and workers start unions in record numbers. There is no better check and balance on corporate greed than a strong union system.

  • Eric Parker (unverified)
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    "I've never understood why Oregonians harp on their public employees every chance they get"

    Because it's not about the healthcare or wages thats the problem. It's about the times when an employee should be fired for gross negligence or incompetence or any violation that would get a private employee let go, yet is still on the job because of the union's zealot over-protection of that employee. The Portland Police are the best example of this.

  • George Seldes (unverified)
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    Nice article on Wal-Mart, the leader in the Unions=Evil campaign: http://is.gd/52hR

  • LT (unverified)
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    Eric, There are lots of public employees who don't deserve their paychecks. But not all of them are unionized--some of them are administrators.

    You said, "Because it's not about the healthcare or wages thats the problem. It's about the times when an employee should be fired for gross negligence or incompetence or any violation that would get a private employee let go"

    If there was as much oversight on administrators as on unionized front line workers (school superintendents who are let go before their contract ends, HR administrators whose HR operation is atrocious compared to other hiring processes from other large employers, long term central office administrators whose exact job description and worth to the organization are questionable) that would be one thing.

    But it seems that the moment someone who may have been a front line worker in the past becomes management (a teacher gets and administrative certificate becomes a principal, then later becomes a central office administrator, for instance), the scrutiny of that person's quality of work goes down.

    This is a state with 36 counties and many big cities. There are problems with the Portland police that do not extend to every other public employee in the state.

    And folks, have you noticed that David Reinhard is leaving the Oregonian? How long has that private sector employee actually been contributing quality to the paper and not just snippy columns? (Kathleen Parker and David Frum have both written more intelligently than Reinhard, IMO).

  • Progressive is a bigger tent (unverified)
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    Barbara Roberts got her start advocating for special education. He primary opponent? The OEA (teachers union). And the OEA remains an opponent of a lot of positive school reform; just ask just about any school reformer.

    Had Oregon been #2 instead of #1 in public employee retirement spending per capita, we would have had a few hundred million extra for schools, and Oregon never would have had to shut school days and been in Doonesbury.

    The Building Trades are the folks who want to spend $4 billion to build a bridge for Vancouver commuters to the detriment of the environment and a post-fossil fuel economy.

    Labor funded consultants are the folks primarily responsible for stopping campaign finance reform in Oregon. Not the fake CFR Measure 64 of Sizemore, but real campaign finance reform.

    Labor unions exist to advocate for their members, and those interests are not always in alignment with the interests of the people as a whole. Protected police violence. Protected racism within Firefighters hiring practices. Logger unions fighting against environmental limitations on logging. Experimenting with more efficient ways of performing public tasks. The list is not short.

    The right to organize is really important. Labor is an important ally of the progressive cause. But to charge that anyone is not progressive if they have serious questions about labor's role in political power, well, that charge is not progressive at all. Such a claim merely shrinks the progressive tent and gives labor even more power despite their excesses.

    To say that labor is unduly under attack is true. To say that labor is a key ally for a huge set of reforms, true. To say that the labor movement is part-parcel with progressive, that's false.

  • Eric Parker (unverified)
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    "There are lots of public employees who don't deserve their paychecks"

    Thats what I am getting at. As a whole, Unions are great, but there always seems to be that one or two people inside the union (front liners) that take advantage of the Union's protection and ruin it for the rest of the workers.

    I would have killed for having Union representaion in one job I had where the management was doing something questionable - contrary to labor law and standards. When I asked "isn't that illegal?" I was told "You are mistaken. What you mention is "public law" and we are a "private" company. There is a difference. If you were a lawyer, you would know this. But since you are not a lawyer, you don't know what you are talking about" Needless to say, I was also told that if I continued to quote any additional "law" that I could be subject to diciplinary action (insubordination). I found later that the company line for the management was "unless they can file charges, it is not illegal".

    I currently work for a good company, but with no union. However, the company does act like a union 90% of the time.

  • Joel H (unverified)
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    "socially liberal, but fiscally conservative"

    There really ought not to be any ambiguity in this phrase. If your second friend was not at least skeptical of public education, universal health care and job training programs, she was misusing the phrase. Liberal is not the same as progressive or socialist: in this context, it means you prefer not to interfere with other people's personal choices. It does not mean you wish to fund social programs.

  • Garage Wine (unverified)
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    Card check unionization allows unions to just immediately start representing their new members. Do it to enough places, and even WalMart will have to buckle.

    Buckle to what?

  • First Friend (unverified)
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    Joel, I believe the second friend said he was a 'Democrat, but fiscally conservative'; something a lot of Democrats were fond of saying for cover in the 90s when Liberal was such a dirty word. In those days, Liberal was shorthand for Liberal Democrat. Not a philosphical liberal "live and let live" libertarian kind of thing.

  • One Mule Team (unverified)
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    I read often and have posted a couple times. Really, I find it a bit offensive that you think you can tell people that they can't be progressive without being "pro-labor" and saying pro-labor and "pro-union" are the same thing.

    I'm generally "pro-union" and a progressive but there are often times that one union or another stands in the way of progressive developments, particularly in the area of environmental policy where unions often benefit from the status quo.

    And really, Unions make progressive politics possible? Hyperbole much?

  • sharonabd (unverified)
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    And in those cases, where the union is standing in the way environmental policy, you would not be pro-labor. But the union still would be.

  • (Show?)

    like too many people on the left these days, Kari, you are confusing "progressive" with "liberal". your use of "progressive" seems to be "make things better for people what ain't rich". but that's not even close. progressive is not a goal or an end: it's how we do politics.

    goals will forever shift. we don't have to fight for child labor laws or for universal suffrage (we just have to protect them). we have a minimum wage, and safe workplace laws, etc. so the fight has moved on to other areas, like ensuring equal pay for equal work or protecting GLBT workers, etc. new battles union founders did not even dream about.

    these are not progressive goals. these are goals, period. they spring from a liberal perspective of society and politics, from the view that every individual has a right to life, liberty and the means to pursue happiness; that each individual's right thereto also implies a responsibility to ensure others enjoy those same rights. nothing about liberalism, as a political concept, has changed. most of what we agree on here at BlueOregon is liberalism. what has changed is that we have different expectations about how to manifest liberal goals and ideals.

    that's where progressivism comes in. last century, liberalism was implemented largely from on high: the leaders told the rest of us what to do. in that context, Dems and unions and others first brought about the reforms that made America properous, free and more equal than every before -- and then they let the power go to their head and they stopped paying attention to what was going on at the 'roots in the late 60s and on into the 70s. as a result, we got Reagan the neocon takeover.

    today, as we seek to restore and strengthen what our liberal forebears fought and worked for, more and more of us are refusing to let "leaders" be in charge. we have decided we will do the leading, right here in our own communities, workplaces, homes, schools, etc. we are pushing forward those we feel will serve us best in political offices (note how i danced around saying "picking our own leaders"?): Dean, Obama, Novick, and others at all levels are moving to the fore because people at the grassroots decide they are the right people and get out and make them "leaders".

    the change that is coming to American politics is not about what goals we are seeking but how we are pursuing those goals. leadership is becoming a grassroots thing. people are uniting in their communities to back candidates, promote good laws & fight bad ones, to educate one another, to do all that is necessary to promote the goals that are relevant to our present time: liberal goals being pursued -- with increasing success -- via propressive politics.

    means & ends are not the same thing. our means are progressive, but the goals remain liberal.

  • Jason Skelton (unverified)
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    Agreed, Kari! Great post and I wish more people knew this.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    like too many people on the left these days, Kari, you are confusing "progressive" with "liberal". your use of "progressive" seems to be "make things better for people what ain't rich". but that's not even close. progressive is not a goal or an end: it's how we do politics.

    Perhaps someone should start another thread to help define the term "progressive" or at least gain an understanding of what people think it means. It appears to be taking on the same vague or catch-all meaning of "liberal."

  • Harry Kershner (unverified)
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    At last I agree with you, Kari. And you're also correct about Democrats not being "timid". (The DP has been complicit in Bush's crimes, not weak-willed, lacking in backbone, or timid.)

  • berlinwinter (unverified)
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    "The right is happy to have individuals opposing them, because then their total dominance over the levers of power is somewhat obscured. What they hate is any institution that serves as a counterweight to their power -- and that would be unions."

    Unions, like any institution, are imperfect. But they are one of the only institutions built by working people for working people. When you strip everyting else away, unions are about people working TOGETHER to affect their lives.

    Those in power benefit when we in the progressive movement embrace--even revel in--their definition of "individualism" and "freedom." I am not asking anyone to turn a blind eye to organizied labor's dysfunctions, but I am asking folks to question the notion of being "pro-labor" but "anti-union." That's like a certain U.S. Senator voting to gut workers rights at every turn but throwing his arm around "Joe the Plumber" while he does it.

    Lest you think this is as an over simplification of the dynaic at work, consider this: as Barack Obama's economic message got more traction in the face of the crashing markets the McCain/Palin culture war lost its steam. With their wedge-issue playbook washed up, and no message to address the concerns of MILLIONS of working people, McCain picked just one to deal with...as an individual.

  • LiberalIncarnate (unverified)
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    I get tired of anti-union talk. I have worked for companies that had no unions and those that did. Unions come into being primarily because at some point during a company's history it has been viewed as abusing the rights of their workers. If companies could be trusted to treat their employees as human beings and not commodities then it would be a different story.

    I have worked for quite a few years as a flight attendant. I worked for Horizon Air prior to its becoming unionized and just after. Horizon had numerous rules on scheduling, pay and benefits that it was committed to follow, yet when push and came shove, those rules were thrown out the window and employees and passengers were put at risk by having flight attendants work extra flights over what the company originally had promised. The original union contract was nothing more than solidifying those rules and make them "legal".

    This is not news to many companies that strive to keep unions out. However, unions act as protection for those they represent to ensure fairness in the workplace.

    It is a sad state of affairs that even many progressives have become if not anti-union, not overly supportive to union workers. This antipathy has been reflected in declining union membership over the last few decades and greater job insecurity. This is not the America that I was born into.

  • LT (unverified)
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    http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0700/stories/0701_0105.html

    is an excellent beginning to study what Progressive originally meant.

    It didn't mean "not Republican" as Teddy Roosevelt was in the movement as were many across the political spectrum. There was even a Progressive Party roughly a century ago.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    Great link. Thank you, LT.

  • David (unverified)
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    Thank you Kari and LiberalIncarnate. I agree that many erstwhile progressives sadly fail to recognize that the increasing disparity in income distribution and the attendant social ills coincide with the decline in union membership over the last several decades. The playing field between corporations and labor is far from even. I know many social issue progressives who are social Darwinists on economic issues. Empathy deficit disorder is a disease.

  • ValkRaider (unverified)
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    Wow.

    Talk about a union love fest going on in here.

    I am not going to get into why I am not very fond of unions, because I am so drastically outnumbered here. I would be glad to discuss it but I fear that it would end up a dogpile ...

    But I do have one question:

    If a person has the right to be in a union, shouldn't they also have a right to NOT be in a union? What if I want to work at a job and negotiate my own terms, salary and benefits - but I can't because the position is unionized? How is that any more fair than a person who wants to organize but cannot? Union dues are taken out of paychecks whether one wants to be a member or not...

  • Bob (unverified)
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    Sorry to come back to the auto unions, but since my comment early on was terribly summarized and blown off, let me clarify:

    The unions did not cause the death of Detroit. Poor management did. Unions, however, did nothing to PREVENT the death of the Big 3.

    By the early '80s, it was clear to anyone outside Detroit that the American auto industry was getting trounced by Honda, Toyota and the like.

    Unions didn't insist on making better products. They didn't threaten to strike unless the automakers started innovating and stopped relying on high-margin gas guzzlers to make money. Unions did what unions do -- they merely ensured good pay and benefits for workers.

    But now where are we? Union membership is down because there are fewer auto workers every day. Detroit continues to make shitty products, so workers get laid off. By focusing on short-term pay and benefits while ignoring the long-term health of the industry, autoworkers are in far worse shape now than they have been in in decades. That's not pro-worker -- it's short sighted.

    I'd much prefer to be an employed non-union worker at a Toyota plant than a laid off union member at Ford or GM.

    My point is this: Unions began as a progressive ideal, then became so conservative they ensured their own demise. If we're serious about helping workers, it's time for unions to get progressive again -- and that means moving beyond the us vs. them mentality that's defined most union/management relationships for the last 50 years.

    When unions start championing innovation instead of stifling it, I'll consider myself pro-union again. Until then, I'm merely pro-labor.

  • Robert G. Gourley (unverified)
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    If a person has the right to be in a union, shouldn't they also have a right to NOT be in a union?

    They have many names for such an occupation: Boss, Management, Entrepreneur...the list goes on.

    Workers chose their occupation, end up working for someone else, and are therefore collectively in the same boat - it's not such a hard concept to grasp.

  • Robert Harris (unverified)
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    I don't really understand the connection between WW's plug for candidates who are more independent of union influence and being anti or pro-labor.

    Remember, elected officials are actually Management. They are the executives and supervisors in charge of making sure that the people/taxpayers/clients are satisfied with the products and services government delivers, and that they are getting fair value. So I would hope that our elected officials are independent from labor.

    In fact, you can make an argument that there's a real tension between progressive policies and public employee unions. For every dollar spent on employees, there is one dollar less for other services like providing in home care for the elderly, or school books, or roadways.

    That's not to say of course that we should elect union busters. But being pro-labor can include respecting the rights and obligations of unions, working with them to get decent and appropriate work conditions, wages and benefits, while also fulfilling your responsibilities to the taxpayers.

  • Detroiter (unverified)
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    This hurts: "Detroit continues to make shitty products." What are you thinking of, the Pinto? Have you even driven an American car lately? It is so easy to crap on U.S. automakers. I wish you would think critically about why you are against one of the few products still made in this country. I will put my Buick up against any Toyota or Honda product (I have owned both in the past), any day of the week. I am proud to buy American whenever I can, cars or textiles or toys for my kid- just as i try to buy locally grown produce and eat at independent restaurants and support public education, and infrastructure investment and my community center, too. I know that the fiscal health of my community depends on it. Progressives love to talk about poor folks who vote against their self-interest when they vote Republican. I think you do the same when you don't support American manufacturing whenever you can. Because very very soon, we will all live in a country that makes nothing and owns nothing, and we will all be at risk.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    This hurts: "Detroit continues to make shitty products."

    There were many flawed vehicles that came out of Detroit, so much so that some states passed what came to be known as "lemon laws" to protect car buyers. At the same time there were stories going around that workers on the factory floor would deliberately create those flaws to spite management even though it really meant lots of problems for the buyers. Bad press takes a long time to live down.

    Having rented a number of cars over the last couple of years I found some good American cars and some not so good.

    Then there is the problem of Detroit making gas guzzlers and encouraging buyers to purchase them despite the many warnings about climate change that gas guzzlers make worse.

  • andy (unverified)
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    Big labor is full of scum which is why it has a scummy reputation. That isn't that hard to figure out. Unions use all sorts of bullying, intimidation, and criminal means to achieve their goals. No wonder they have such a poor reputation. Not so sure what is progressive about mob action and mob ties Kari. Guess you'll have to explain it to me.

  • Jiang (unverified)
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    How is it liberalincarnate that if you have the mob beating you up, you get your brother-in-law to beat them up? Stupid animalistic non-sense.

    Dead right, though. Unions have been inspired by grotesque abuses. Abuses the government should have controlled. All that "they cheat us if we don't unionize" is outsourcing policing. I refuse to accept that power elite will screw me as the normal course, so I have to unionize.

    Aside, I like unions. I don't think all management are evil. But both insist on having the other by the gonads instead of real power sharing. Whatever you choose, it has to run smoothly. Your energy has to go to fighting the competition, not management/labor.

  • mikeryan (unverified)
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    Huzzah to Progressive is a bigger tent, whose very name says it all. I didn't know there was a litmus test for "progressivism" until I read this post.

  • Detroiter (unverified)
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    Every big automaker makes trucks, not just the American carmakers. Toyota was focused on more truck production before the gas hikes started. Profits for all car companies are much higher on trucks than on Sedans. There were a LOT of terrible products in the 1970s. The early Hondas, Toyotas and Volkswagons were horrible, too. Bad engineering all around in those days. We also wore ugly pants and groovy shoes. What does that have to do with the right to collective bargaining? Thank you, Kari, for your brave defense of labor unions. As you can see, the haters are looking for someone to blame, and the easy scapegoat is the working class.

  • Ole Barn (unverified)
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    Power and control have always been the desire of the "haves." Without organized labor, you would have simply serfdom. The workers who use tools and their hands to produce products are more aware of the weight of oppression than those who traditionally work in offices. Workers in agribusiness are also acutely aware of the serfdom associated with not being represented by a labor organization. The underclass and underserved are being organized by labor at this time. These include home care workers, child care providers, workers and adult foster care homes, nursing home workers and janitors.

    Union members in these industries, as well as teachers and public employees, outnumber what has been traditionally referred to as organized labor. Over 70% of the workers in America would be unionized given the opportunity. The elections held in many instances are a sham. Workers are submitted to one-on-one intimidation, mandatory "on the clock" meetings, and contacts at their homes intimidating them further. The employee free choice act also referred to as "card check" will eliminate the one-sided nature of organizing.Currently companies can be found guilty of an unfair labor practice, receive a small fine for this transgression, and continue the practice without any real fear of penalty. Such is the lot of the labor movement in America today.

    Unions were the first to oppose the World Trade Organization(WTO), the North American Free Trade Act(NAFTA), and the Central American Free Trade Act. Now workers in every industry regardless of whether they are unionized or not are getting the "shafta." Organized labor, a.k.a. unions, is the only collective voice for working persons in America.

    So regardless of the negative anecdotal experiences one may have heard about, a progressive must be pro-labor if not pro-union.

  • Ron Buel (unverified)
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    As a former labor organizer, I have to agree with the main point of Kari's post -- in Oregon, you can't call yourself a progressive if you are anti-union or anti-labor. That IS the reality, and for the very good reasons that Kari cites. But what the folks I know in Oregon's unions really want to say is that all progressives have to agree with them on all matters all the time, or they are anti-union and therefore not progressive. Which is another cup of tea altogether, but it is the underlying inference of friend Kari's "column".

    Democrats are in ascendance in Oregon because the Republican Party and their leaders, both nationally and in this state, have shot themselves in the foot. The Republican Party is a dying entity here, despite the fact that business and their executives continue to outspend labor and progressive individuals in Oregon races over-all, on the order of 2-1.

    The public employee unions have power today (let's name names -- AFSCME, OEA and SEIU) because they have lots of members and lots of money to spend on politics (and presumably that's because they do a good job of representing their members). They give it largely to Democrats, and they spend it wisely in Democratic primaries, often deciding the outcomes. Check Ted Kulongoski's C&Es against Bev Stein and Jim Hill in 2002. Check the recent Attorney General Primary when SEIU and OEA gave John Kroger $362,000 to punish Greg McPherson for his role in PERS reform. I can give you similar examples in legislative primaries. We know where MOST of the money comes from, as well, in Future PAC and the Senate Democratic Leadership Caucus and in the general races themselves, money that is spent in the competitive legislative races across the state (largely in the suburbs of Portland, Eugene and Salem, and almost exclusively for Ds). There is nothing inherently wrong or conspiratorial about this. This is special interest politics as it is widely practiced today across the nation.
    It is also fair to say that MOST of this money is spent for progressive and liberal candidates who will generally support the things we believe in. How can we liberals or progressives object?
    Nor can we object when our ambitious liberal politicians do their own power analysis and decide who has the money to advance their careers, and go to work, first and foremost for the labor agenda (or, as someone pointed out above, for the Trial Lawyers). So, with these disclaimers aside, I hereby give you what I do object to, and, unfortunately, it is not a short list: I object, as a progressive or liberal, when Unions or union loyalists now elected to office (read former union employees, not just union members): 1)Put their own narrow union goals above the progressive agenda. Karen Minnis, right-wing Republican leader, had a progressive opponent in Rob Brading in 2006. Where was AFSCME in that race? It supported Minnis, because she supported the building of prisons, and AFSCME represents correction workers in Oregon. Minnis won, progressives lost, AFSCME won, or did it? 2)When OEA came in to oppose HJR 54, a referral of a funding floor for k-12, community colleges and higher education in 2007 (for the third session in a row)it became clear to those supporting the matter that keeping peace in labor around the state budget (read with SEIU and AFSCME who represent state employees) was more important to the OEA than representing their members larger progressive interests. One cannot make the argument that OEA members, presented with the possibility of putting a floor into effect at 100% of QEM, would suggest that their lobbyists would offer testimony against it. But there was the OEA opposing it, their spokesperson testifying against the referral with bogus logic and arguments.
    3)Most progressives who I know personally, and I have a wide acquaintance in the community from 40 years of political activity here, support campaign finance reform. Why did the OEA and SEIU oppose it so vehemently with their friends at what is now called Defend Oregon or Our Oregon? Why, when we progressives are so badly outspent by conservative money, are we against putting limits on campaign spending? Does it have anything to do with the status quo, with who has Nesbitt and Terhune sitting at the right hand of the Governor, with who really runs the State at this point in Democratic ascendancy? I know the rule of special interest politics is that when you are in power, you preserve the status quo. When your own contributions are more strategic and are winning, no one wants limits on them.
    4) A group of environmentalists and environmental and land use organizations opposed the Columbia River Crossing at the City and Metro. These organizations, all good members of what one might call the progressive community, expressed concern with building a $4.2 billion, 12-lane bridge across the Columbia in a time of global warming and peak oil and land-use sprawl in Clark County. Those involved were chagrined to see the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council supporting the big new replacement bridge, joining forces with the Truckers and the Portland Business Alliance, because of their jobs. When the matter hit City Council, it was former Union employee Randy Leonard who said, how could you oppose the creation of these 600-700 family-wage construction jobs, stating clearly what has become the labor position on such matters, damn the consequences. 5) I would further offer the over-all analysis that this state has not made much progress under Kulongoski, or the three Democratic Governors who proceeded him for that matter, on finding an adequate and stable source for funding education at all levels to move us into the future with a knowledge economy, achieving health care and insurance accessibility for our citizens, or building a representative democracy that is not in the control of big money and television advertising and special interests on both sides of the aisle. These, along with global warming/sustainability/energy/land-use/transporation issues, are the major problems facing our State in the 21st century. Labor has not put together, nor have the progressive leaders we have elected with labor money and support, a program in the legislature or by initiative, to solve the State's leading problems. Instead, I see labor wanting us to be distracted by Sizemore and thereby justifying playing defense with huge amounts of money over the last 25 years in this State, building their own power to defend the status quo, but not working the important parts of the progressive agenda vigorously or consistently, with innovation or excellence or foresight.
    That is a judgment with which, I recognize, others may disagree. It is, however, the way I see it. Out here on this blog, Kari's wonderful blog, I am undoubtedly heretic and to be expelled from all of progressivedom.

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