Late last August a hard-fought campaign by the United Auto Workers to organize 850 workers at the Saint-Gobain Abrasives factory in Worcester, Massachusetts, was coming to a head. Facing harsh attacks and management claims that forming a union would endanger benefits, union organizers maintained an upbeat tone, challenging the company to a debate (“It’s the American way”). Workers at the long-established factory, now owned by a French multinational, had rejected three other union drives in the past decade, but they had grown disillusioned with management’s failure to live up to its promises, and the large committee of union supporters had won over many doubters. Nevertheless, veteran organizer Richard Bensinger worried that the escalating pressure of mandatory anti-union meetings between supervisors and individual workers could whittle away the union’s narrow lead in the final week.

So he persuaded popular local Democratic Congressman James McGovern to send a pointed letter to employees criticizing Saint-Gobain’s tactics. McGovern called the company’s arguments about lost benefits “ridiculous” and pointed out that, contrary to company assertions, federal labor law did not prevent a debate. “The laws are structured in such a way as to make it extremely difficult for workers to organize,” McGovern advised, adding that “if it were me, I’d vote to unionize.” A few days later, the workers voted–406 to 386, with eighteen additional challenged ballots–in favor of unionizing. McGovern’s words had boosted morale and thrown the company’s anti-union drive off balance. In such a close election, Bensinger said, “we would not have won if he hadn’t done it.” McGovern downplayed his importance. “I got involved in this effort because the deck was stacked against the workers,” McGovern said. “Everything I did I thought was justified. I’d do it again.”

Incensed at its loss, the company, advised by Jackson Lewis, a notorious anti-union law firm, filed unfair labor practice charges against McGovern for speaking out on the issues. Ultimately, as the union campaigned for Saint-Gobain to “respect democracy,” the National Labor Relations Board upheld (by a 2-to-1 vote) the regional officer’s decision that McGovern had not improperly interfered with the election. But the company’s audacious challenge to the free-speech rights of a member of Congress was an effort to curb the labor movement’s growing and effective use of political clout on behalf of workers’ rights to organize and negotiate contracts.

From the rough-and-tumble labor battles of the late nineteenth century to the organizing drives of the 1930s and 1940s, the success of unions has always been linked to the support–or antagonism–of elected officials, with their powers over police, legislation, contracts and public opinion. The one area where unions have made serious gains in recent decades is the public sector, partly because elected officials authorized collective bargaining and did not fight unionization (though twenty-seven states still do not have comprehensive legislation giving public workers the right to bargain collectively). But with some notable exceptions–like Bobby Kennedy’s marching in the 1960s with California farmworkers–few political leaders in recent decades have taken strong public stands with workers who are trying to organize. That reflects rising business influence on Democrats, but it’s also because labor unions haven’t been demanding that elected officials help workers organize, despite a long-term decline in union representation that has contributed to both rising economic inequality and declining Democratic political fortunes. Indeed, unions involved public officials in less than 14 percent of a large sample of organizing campaigns from 1998 to 1999, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. “We spend so much time propping up Democratic politicians, and then we let them off,” said Bensinger, who was formerly the AFL-CIO’s organizing director. “We don’t let the workers off. We force them to take a courageous stand. Why shouldn’t the politicians take a courageous stand?”

John Sweeney pledged to lead a renaissance of union organizing when he took over as president of the AFL-CIO in 1995, but the labor federation’s efforts have so far yielded modest results. On the other hand, its political work has increased union-household voter registration, turnout and support for labor-backed candidates in each election cycle. Over the past year the AFL-CIO, searching for new ways to boost organizing and inspired by the successes of some unions, has tried increasingly to use its political clout to support organizing. The federation has encouraged individual unions to engage politicians in the fight against employer tactics of intimidation, threats and firings during union drives. Jobs With Justice, a labor-community network, has included politicians on workers’ rights boards to investigate workers’ grievances. More and more, unions at all levels are asking politicians seeking union backing to speak out for workers’ rights to organize unions–and to join picket lines, call employers or use legislative and regulatory powers to support workers in tough organizing fights.

It’s not just a question of persuading politicians to help those who got them elected. Unions argue that officials who help organizing would advance the public interest by raising standards of living, expanding health insurance coverage, stabilizing employment by giving workers a voice on the job and reducing the public subsidies given to low-wage private employers through financial and medical aid to the working poor. They argue that public dollars going to firms–such as contracts, reimbursements, tax breaks or subsidies–shouldn’t support employers’ anti-union actions, or be risked on businesses that break laws or encourage instability by refusing to establish amicable relationships with employees.

But unions also make the moral argument that politicians must stand up for important values at work. “If we’re serious about being a democracy, collective bargaining is essential, not a luxury,” says Communications Workers of America (CWA) executive vice president Larry Cohen. “Are there only going to be contracts for the top bosses? If we don’t get political support, bargaining will vanish.” Top managers insist on elaborate contracts, he said, then hire “a team of lawyers to make sure workers don’t have that agreement.” Likewise, as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) executive vice president Tom Woodruff observes, most people would agree that if a supervisor asks an employee for a date, then reminds her of favors he has done, it’s sexual harassment, “yet the same thing happens over and over in organizing, where there is the inherent coercion of supervisors influencing employees [against a union], when workers know so much of their day-to-day work life depends on that supervisor.”

Politicians can help in two ways: by intervening personally as public leaders and by using legislative or regulatory powers to support organizing. Boilerplate resolutions or letters don’t help much, most organizers insist, and may just let politicians off the hook. Having politicians at rallies often boosts morale, “but ultimately what is needed is for employers to remain neutral, so workers can make decisions free of intimidation,” said AFL-CIO assistant organizing director Chris Woods. “Having elected leaders call on employers to act responsibly is absolutely critical.”

Representative Luis Gutierrez took the plunge last year on behalf of 120 workers–mainly recent immigrants–who went on strike to force recognition of their union at V&V Supremo, an ethnic food manufacturer in his Chicago district. Gutierrez joined a press conference in front of the Latino-owned company as workers launched a boycott. While TV cameras from Spanish-language stations rolled, he said that he loved V&V Supremo cheese, but until the company treated workers with respect, “Here’s what I’m going to do with it”–and he threw the cheese in a garbage bin. Gutierrez came to rallies, made the workers’ case in the press, leafleted stores, made a pro-boycott radio ad (which a local Spanish-language station refused to air) and–joined by Representative Jan Schakowsky–got the regional Immigration and Naturalization Service director to clarify publicly the agency’s policy of not intervening in any labor dispute, thus undercutting the company’s tactic of intimidating undocumented workers by threatening them with exposure.

“We preach increasing the minimum wage, healthcare benefits, improving workers’ conditions,” Gutierrez said of his fellow Democrats. “Let’s do it. We have the opportunity to put it in practice on a picket line. To the extent we do that, we’re better off as a party.” In the long run, the more workers there are in unions, the more progressive voters there are. Increased registration and voting by members of union households has provided labor-backed candidates–mainly Democrats–the margin of victory in many recent elections, including Gore’s win in several key states in 2000. But without more members, there’s a limit to how much more political juice can be squeezed from union ranks. Also, as President Bush and Republican strategists try to woo conservative labor leaders with divisive ploys–like energy and environmental policies that promise union jobs but alienate other progressives–Democrats will need to make a more convincing case that they’re really pro-worker. “For our party,” Gutierrez argues, taking a forceful stand for workers’ right to organize “creates some intensity to want to support the Democratic Party. It shows there’s a real difference here. We’ll do what it takes to fight for working families.” In the post-Enron era, there’s an additional political advantage in taking the side of working people against greedy and irresponsible corporations.

Elected officials can also reduce employer opposition through legislation. There is no prospect currently for strengthening federal labor laws. Indeed, Bush promptly blocked a late-term Clinton order requiring federal agencies to consider how well potential contractors had obeyed federal laws, including the right to organize. Still, in the Senate, Ted Kennedy’s Labor Committee has scheduled hearings for June 20 on barriers to union organizing, and Paul Wellstone is introducing legislation that would strengthen the right to organize by guaranteeing union organizers the same rights to address workers as management, increasing penalties for illegally firing pro-union workers, and expediting union elections. Unions have made some headway at the state and local levels, but there is one big barrier: For all groups of workers covered by federal labor law, the federal government pre-empts, or claims sole authority over, labor regulations. Though it’s still politically unlikely, some labor strategists, like AFL-CIO field representative Andy Levin, would like to make federal labor law a minimum but give states the power to expand workers’ rights. Yet states and localities do have the power to regulate how their money is used and can impose rules that indirectly affect workers’ rights.

For example, a half-dozen local government bodies have passed some variety of “labor peace” rules, often narrowly targeted to avoid any challenge that they are pre-empting federal jurisdiction. Typically these local laws say that it’s in the interest of the public to have an uninterrupted flow of services and that peaceful labor relations make businesses more reliable and productive. In Milwaukee, the county government required private contractors of publicly funded health and human services to give union organizers a list of all employees, to provide organizers access to the worksite and to not use tax dollars for captive-audience anti-union meetings. These rules sped SEIU’s recent organizing of 1,200 home healthcare aides [see David Glenn, “Labor of Love,” September 3/10, 2001]. The San Francisco airport commissioners decided two years ago that workers at the airport should be recognized as a union when a majority signed cards, helping six unions organize 2,600 workers, despite a partly successful challenge to the law on the grounds of federal pre-emption. Living-wage legislation for municipal subcontractors in Los Angeles encourages unionization, including at the airport.

Unions also use their influence to win help for organizing at specific projects that have received public subsidies. Construction unions have long sought project labor agreements that guarantee labor peace in exchange for use of union contractors. In more than sixty cases, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union, with help from central labor councils, has won agreements for employer neutrality and card-check recognition in union organizing at hotels, convention centers and other projects built on public land or with public subsidies. In other cases, local governments are establishing responsible-contractor policies. In San Jose, for example, the local labor council carefully reviews all bidders for city contracts, opposing businesses with a history of hostility to workers and unions or other social irresponsibility. SEIU has pressured officials of public pension funds, such as the giant CalPERS, to adopt “responsible contractor” policies for buildings they own, encouraging use of unionized janitorial contractors. Strategies vary because they must be tailored to each situation, argues Milwaukee County Labor Council president John Goldstein, since “one size doesn’t fit all.”

The top priority for many unions, like SEIU, is stopping use of public funds to fight unions. Too often employers “violate the right to have a union and come right back to government–for tax breaks, building roads, a whole legislative agenda–and neither party says to them individually or as a group that our ability to help you here depends on your behavior over there,” says the SEIU’s Woodruff. In 2000, however, California passed legislation introduced by State Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, a former union organizer, that bars businesses from using public funds to fight unions. But such regulations require vigorous enforcement, since employers can claim they paid the unionbuster with nonpublic money. There’s a similar federal ban on public dollars to fight unions at Head Start facilities, but the Clinton Administration didn’t enforce it.

Most of the politicians who intervene personally or legislatively are progressive Democrats from safe, urban districts, and local politicians are still more likely to be involved than members of Congress or governors. Also, Latino politicians are especially likely to take a stand, as they have in campaigns to organize janitors in California, roofers in Arizona and laundry workers in Chicago, partly because community issues of immigrant rights are often intimately linked with basic labor rights issues. But even a few moderate Republicans–like Representatives Chris Shays of Connecticut or John Sweeney of New York–have defended workers who were organizing, and New York Governor George Pataki is picking up labor support for establishing card-check recognition for workers not covered by federal law, including those at Indian-owned casinos. Slowly unions are making demands on a broader range of politicians, but there’s a strong tendency–especially among union political operatives–to shield Democrats in marginal districts from taking controversial stands.

So far, few politicians have turned down requests to help organize, but that’s mainly because unions haven’t asked very often, usually ask likely suspects and make it clear that it’s not a litmus test for support. Representative David Bonior, who invited union organizers and workers to House Democratic retreats to educate legislators about obstacles to organizing, has chided unions for not demanding more of politicians. But as demands escalate and some politicians inevitably fail to come through, unions will have to draw lines in the sand, as they did in Cleveland. In a long campaign to organize janitors at the juvenile court, labor successfully opposed an administrative law judge when he ran for higher office because he had earlier blocked unionization. After he lost, “he said he understood he made a mistake,” labor council president John Ryan recounted, and so far about 150 workers have got a union, some with a 40 percent wage increase and a forty-hour week. “We have to communicate that the game has changed,” he said. “We say we do more for you at election time, but we demand more once you’re elected.”

“We don’t do campaigns without politicians anymore,” says UNITE regional organizer Pete DeMay, who has used political pressure to organize several commercial laundries in the Chicago area. “There’s always an angle.” In one case, Royal Airline Linen was refusing to recognize the union. Organizers persuaded local City Council members to raise questions about a new bond issue to help United Airlines, one of Royal’s biggest customers, and United leaned on Royal to bargain with its workers. In Cleveland UNITE won recognition at one factory after the City Council gave notice that a tax abatement would be canceled. In other cases, organizers can bring inspectors down on sweatshops, increasing pressure to negotiate. Bronfenbrenner’s research confirmed DeMay’s experience. Unions in her sample won 59 percent of elections when public officials were involved, but only 43 percent when they weren’t. More dramatically, they won 71 percent of the time when they used officials as part of a comprehensive organizing effort.

Yet it is easy to overstate the value, and ignore perils, of relying on politicians’ clout. “They’re not going to organize for us,” argues Joe Costigan, Midwest political director for UNITE. “We still have to have the commitment of the people.” Bronfenbrenner’s research also shows that the key to organizing success is a multifaceted, worker-focused approach. “Using public officials is important,” she said, “but if you don’t involve your members, don’t work inside the plant and don’t focus on issues that resonate with the community, then it doesn’t work.” There’s also a risk that some unions will rely on inside deals and top-down approaches to organizing, returning to old-style patronage politics rather than building unions from the ground up. CWA’s Cohen, for example, is skeptical about tricky deals with politicians, even to advance organizing, especially if the politicians are antagonists on other major issues. “The real question is whether we are doing political work in a way that makes sense to members and that changes things,” he said. “We’re not going to challenge [global corporations] in some back room.” In many cases, unions can gain more by using their own bargaining power to neutralize employer opposition than they can through political leverage.

But by challenging politicians, unions make them aware of the myriad tactics, legal and illegal, that employers use to deprive workers of their right to organize and improve their lives. In small ways, each organizing battle that recruits politicians and community supporters builds toward a much-needed new movement for civil rights at work, anchored in the right to organize and bargain collectively free of fear.