“Look for the Union Label” is the friendly admonition found in documents produced by America’s labor movement. And sure enough, you don’t have to search far to find that moniker — and union fingerprints — all over the opposition to Social Security reform and with good reason.
Certainly, jumping into the biggest political rumble in decades on the side of its friends, the Democratic leadership in Congress, should come as no surprise. “Labor recognizes this is a way to make the president a lame duck real early,” a senior administration official told me. For unions the stakes are even higher than one year, one issue and one Congress. But the same is true for American businesses.
Concerns about the president’s initiative have deeper roots and broader implications — for labor and business. Despite intra-industry fights and isolated corporate gripes about the White House, the last four years have been an extraordinarily friendly environment for the business community. Through tax cuts, free-trade agreements, litigation reform or a more open-minded view on mergers, to name a few, the Bush administration and the Republicans in Congress have been the tail-wind for a pro-growth trek for American business.
Labor gets it. No interest group in America has more riding on the success of the Democratic Party and the demise of Republicans. Labor’s success on issues like the minimum wage, bargaining powers, protectionism and reining in business flexibility depends on Democratic reinvigoration. If the White House prevails on this issue, it could establish the Republicans as the true party of “reform” in the minds of voters for the next generation — not a great outcome for the Democrats and their Big Labor allies.
So expect more examples of well-worn union political tactics as the debate unfolds. After all, this is not an election year; so union political operatives have some time on their hands. Consider the case of the group Americans United to Protect Social Security. According to Roll Call last week, the organization will be spearheaded by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the AFL-CIO. Moreover, Democratic campaign operatives with ties to organized labor fill the two top staff positions.
It’s no surprise then that the group unleashed a vicious attack on Republican Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana last week, charging that he was an “emblem of increased corruption in Congress” because he supports Social Security reform and also received campaign contributions from “securities and commercial banking interests.”
Really. Well, as long as we’re looking for “emblems,” why don’t we “look for that union label?” Are Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi of California or Harry Reid of Nevada also “emblems of increased corruption” in Congress because they support big labor’s policies and accept union political contributions? Definitely not. Except if you apply the logic of groups like Americans United to Protect Social Security. Do they believe lawmakers that accept union money and support union positions are also “emblems” of corruption.
Union political organizing tactics were also on display last week when the AFL-CIO gleefully announced in an e-mail to activists that the securities company Edward R. Jones would no longer participate in a pro-Social Security reform coalition, the Alliance for Worker Retirement, (a group that supports the president’s proposal) after picketers showed up outside the company’s offices. The unions now have a similar message for other securities companies on Social Security reform: Drop your support or you’re next.
It’s too early to tell if union bare-knuckle rhetoric and hardball organizing tactics will work. The opportunity,however,to counter Democratic- labor coalition is unmistakable. The debate offers a real opportunity for businesses to go on the offense and demonstrate that markets, regulations and the role of government have all changed dramatically since the creation of Social Security. Businesses that used the same methods, assumptions and tools as 50 years ago would fail, as will government programs that don’t adapt to changing dynamics.
Even if the “union label” is fraying, due to loss of membership and declining political clout, unions still take clear and aggressive stands to help their allies on Capitol Hill. The business community has the incentive and opportunity to see the fight for what it is, and join in the fray as aggressively as its labor colleagues.