Take It to the Blue States

Take It to the Blue States

Maybe labor should give up on Washington in favor of friendlier terrain.


Blue about November 2? As a labor lawyer in a Blue State, I’m ready to give up. Not because Bush will repeal the Wagner Act–I almost wish he would. The act is so screwed up, management could hardly have it any better. Worried about the National Labor Relations Board? Not really. No union serious about organizing uses it anymore.

The problem is, unions represent only about 8 percent of the workforce (private sector). When the airlines finish with Chapter 11, we could be even smaller. In four years, could labor in the private sector be more or less gone? I hope not. Anyway, I suppose someone will always be on strike at Yale.

The worst part about the next four years is that labor will be tied down, on Capitol Hill, fighting privatization of Social Security. We will be too bloodied, after that, to do much organizing in “the backlands.”

Still, am I really that discouraged? You bet I am.

Let the real me step aside, then, and bring forward a me who pretends to believe why our defeat on November 2 is, or could be, a good thing. Because now, after November 2, we know that we are Two Nations. We should give up on DC.

Let’s govern from the Blue States.

If we govern from the Blue States, it may be possible to bring the labor movement back. What do I mean by “governing from the Blue States”? Use state law as much as possible to set up the kind of social democracy we would like to see for the country as a whole.

How are we going to do this? It won’t be easy, but it’s a whole lot cheaper and easier than doing what we just did in the Kerry campaign. Let’s keep intact America Coming Together and MoveOn. Let’s give the kids who worked the streets something to do.

This will cost money, but if the voter breakdowns are right, the Democrats have dough, big dough. If the rich of the GOP can fund the Christian right, maybe Harvard can give a little more to labor, since at least a labor union is an institution of the Enlightenment.

First, we need places for people to meet. Instead of unions that people can join only if a majority of workers at a workplace decide they want to be members, we should have organizations, or clubs, that could include associate members, people like you and me who never dreamed we might have a union card. Let people, individually, one by one, sign up as union members, and not only as part of a “bargaining unit.” In Europe, that’s how they do it.

We need some place to go, and meet, and hang out, the way they do in the rural counties on the Christian right. Democrats will always be shy of a majority until we have places where we can be citizens. While the voting rate may have gone up, I have a hunch the number of real citizens keeps dropping. And the reason is that, as John Dewey wrote long ago, the last and least important thing about citizenship is voting. More important is to live a certain way of life. When many evangelical Christians went to the polls in 2004, they may have been voting for the first time. But they already were citizens, albeit not of this world, perhaps.

So? Let’s bring people into clubs, as individual union members. Say I’m a salesman, in my car. Let me sign up as an individual, whether I work with anyone or not.

Yes, I know, it’s an idea that has already appeared in this magazine [see Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Geoghegan, “Lighting Labor’s Fire,” December 23, 2002]. Here it is, recycled: Have “associate” memberships, make the dues cheap and give people something in return to help them out at work. Not a discount at a hotel, but a one-on-one, labor-union kind of help. One idea: a talk with a lawyer, or legal advice. Or counseling. In one case I know, the Steelworkers have been doing this. In a pilot project in Minnesota, they now let anyone sign up to be an “associate member.” As such a member, I can get counseling if I am fired or demoted. This pilot program is attempting something more substantial than the AFL-CIO version, Working America.

“But this kind of thing,” said a friend, “would only appeal to a few.” He’s right. Very few. How about one in ten? That would double the size of labor.

What comes next? Give the new individual members and the old union members a place to meet and officers to elect. Set them up in organizations in every Blue State. Then lobby for changes in the labor laws of those states.

I know what some will say: “You can’t use states to change federal labor law.” That’s right. There is a legal doctrine, known as pre-emption, that stops states from interfering with the Wagner Act and other federal labor laws. But even under the law of pre-emption there are many labor-law changes that states could make. For example, the Blue States could pass a law: “Nobody can be fired, except for just cause.” That is, each Blue State could get rid of the old common law rule of “employment at will,” which means “I can fire you for any reason at any time.” Or for no reason. Or the color of your tie.

Any law in a Blue State that knocks out employment at will would do more for organizing in that Blue State than eking out a win over Bush and the right. How? Simple. It bulletproofs the people who want to join a union. When the boss tries to bust a union by firing Norma Rae without cause, she can go to court. Get a jury. Damages. Even an injunction. Contempt.

With this law, if we had organizing drives, we could get some cover for our people. If poor Norma Rae is fired now, all we can do is file charges with the NLRB. If we prove antiunion motive, maybe the board will act. There are no sanctions and no discovery, and it takes forever. Believe me, it would be much easier, and worse for employers, to go into a court under a state law and take depositions.

As we lawyers like to say, let’s poke around their house.

There are other state law changes that we could make in New York, California, Illinois and New England that could boost labor. For one thing, we could change the state laws for not-for-profits–hospitals, universities–where New Labor often organizes. Often the boards of these “charities” are full of business people who hate labor. But a kindly Blue State could require that half the board be people with real backgrounds in charity. Nice people. Such a board would be kinder if a union tried to organize.

Or we could pass laws that let workers elect committees to make sure managers follow state safety codes and wage laws. And what about flex time? Let’s have committees that make sure flex time is for real. No, the committees would not “bargain.” But they could report violations to the state. And it would be a halfway house to starting a real union.

It’s true, to keep people in a new kind of labor, we need to do a little bargaining for them. But what I have in mind, in a Blue State, is a new type of bargaining. It is not bargaining directly with the employer but lobbying to get benefits by passing laws in the state capitals. We can start off with some small things: paid maternity leave, severance pay and a little vacation.

Now, some will say, “Come on, the state governments are awful.” And it’s true, they are. But at least they have one person, one vote, unlike our federal government. That means, in a Blue State, with a simple majority, we have a shot at getting the law changed.

So that’s what a new type of labor movement, in a Blue State, would do. It would give everyone a chance to be “part of labor.” It would give us a new image. For example, every one of the counseling centers ought to have a name like “The Interfaith Center for Workplace Counseling.” Find every priest, minister, rabbi, etc., and link them up to it.

We could start calling on clergy with the fervor of Karl Rove. Tell them, “Those people in the congregation, the fired, the laid off, we want you to refer them to us.” (Now, that’s something the right can’t do for churches.)

But to bring back labor in the Blue States, we need more than a new kind of labor. With the old labor gone and with labor now so weak, the Democrats themselves may have to do what unions used to do. The Democrats will have to do our collective bargaining for us. I mean, not a party that tacitly supports a labor movement, but a party that is the labor movement. The Democrats have to be the SEIU, the Teamsters. And they can do this by passing laws to make employers pay us.

A small example of such a politics: Look at the last Kerry-Bush debate, when Bush was speechless (in a profounder way than usual). The moderator had asked about the minimum wage. Even for Bush, it was startling: He had nothing to say. Except to gape, mutter and then go: Education, education, education. Does anyone else remember this moment?

Every Democrat should. Play that tape back. They, the right, have nothing to say! They don’t mind if we do tax bills, spending bills. But on minimum wage–no, there is never going to be a vote. They don’t dare have a vote. Who wants to be on record against it?

And the minimum wage is nothing. That’s just for the poor. The silence would be deafening if we pushed for wage-type benefits for people in the middle. For married people with kids, and the Christian right who follow Fox.

Here’s what we should go for, if we govern from the Blue States. First, paid maternity leave for three months. Second, right to a vacation for seven days. And a right to four sick days, without being docked. Third, severance pay: one week for every year of work.

Oh, at the Heritage Foundation, they will scream. In the think tanks, they will have plenty to say. But not upfront, on TV, to the American moms. There, they dare not say a word.

Over and over about this last election, it was said: Democrats make these naked appeals to people’s economic interests. But in the Kerry campaign, I never heard any such naked appeal. Yes, he talked “populist” talk. He railed at corporations. He probably said he was for unions. Al Gore did the same. People know in some vague and misty way that Democrats are for the “working people.”

All that is true. But are the working people who vote for Bush voting against their interests? Yes, to an extent they do not vote “rationally.” But a vote for Kerry may or may not pay off. It’s hard to say. It involves some fiddling with the trade or tax laws. It’s unclear, at the end, which working people, if any, are better off. But a vote for the right or for Bush pays off now. It is a smash in the mouth. It pays off as a howl.

John Kennedy and the old Democrats did not have to be so direct. Labor could decode them. Kennedy could say, “I’m for labor,” and people knew that by electing Kennedy, labor would turn that simple statement into cash. But now we have to be more explicit. We have to tell people in a simpler way: Here is how you get the dough.

We can try a new, direct approach, to help us govern in the Blue States. So we can begin with three months’ paid maternity leave. Oh yes, be sure to say: We will give assistance to small business. Then maybe, after a while, go to paid maternity leave of four months. Same with vacation. Let’s start with seven days. Then maybe go to ten.

And what will the GOP say, No? Let them say no. Let the Heritage Foundation scream. We want the screaming so loud, it wakes up people in the pews. Let the Republicans go to the voters and say no. Let’s have a big, noisy battle in every one of the Blue States. I can hardly wait.

Over the years, the Democrats have become terrified to put anything in the platform, because the GOP will add up the numbers and say, “This will cost $10 trillion.” So, terrified, we put little in the platform. We think we’re being smart. We aren’t giving any targets. But it also means we have nothing to hand out. No maternity leave. No severance. No vacation. And that’s why, if we start governing from the Blue States, we ought to do it with a platform: “Here’s the minimum, here’s what we want, in every state.”

The idea is, we want to make ourselves a target. We want people in the Red States to see what we are doing. And if we start governing in the Blue States in this way, we’ll begin to show people what they miss by living in the Red States: paid maternity leave, vacation time, family time.

Just to promise a direct payoff of this kind is a whole new way of appealing to people’s economic interests. It is much, much more direct than anything the Democrats have ever tried.

But it’s not enough just to make the promise in a speech, or even to put it in a platform. From now on, whenever possible, we have to put these payoffs on the ballot. Let’s plan, now, for 2006. In every Blue State, we should have each new benefit, separately, with a separate box, on the voter’s Blue State ballot. Paid maternity leave. Paid vacation. Paid sick leave. Real severance pay.

I mean, shove it in people’s faces. Yes, I know, some Bush voters in Florida voted for the minimum wage. But that was not self-interest, it was a gift for the poor. No, here’s what I mean:

YES. I am voting for severance pay, for me. YES. I am voting for a right to a vacation, for me. YES, I am voting for paid maternity leave, for me. It might begin to dawn on more working people, as they keep checking off the boxes: YES, I must be a Democrat. I know, the Christian right did something similar, with gay marriage bans, to get their own base out in this election. But we need to do it, and not just to get “turnout.” We need to do it pedagogically, to teach people: Wake up! You’re a Democrat. And you have been all your life.

Isn’t it a little lopsided to govern from a few states, even if they are New York, California and a few others? Yes. But there are three payoffs for America. First, if we can build up union membership, just in the Blue States, then there is a bigger labor. And a bigger labor can fight more battles in the Red States. Second, if we can rule in the Blue States, we can show people in the Red States what they are missing out on. In my dreamier moments, I think we should recall the Democratic convention and write the kind of platform we should have had last summer.

Finally, it might teach us how to appeal to people’s interests the next time we go out for the presidency, in 2008. Maybe we will talk much more directly about putting money into people’s pockets. Look at healthcare. Who except Paul Krugman could understand our program? Rather, it might be better if Kerry had just proposed: We’ll pay people’s deductibles, the first $1,000 of coverage. Now it might be crude. But at least people could understand it.

Populism is well and good. But if our populism is complicated and mannered, we only waste our breath. If we are going to be populists, let’s make it a lot simpler. Let’s make it like Star Wars. And let’s try it out in the Blue States, because we can’t wait till ’08.

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