Labor Day, American Values and the Status Quo

For the past two years I’ve traveled across the country to film festivals, labor events and public forums to show my documentary, “Farewell to Factory Towns?” With Labor Day on the horizon, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the reactions of audiences to the film.

While relatively diverse, the audiences generally support the major points that the film makes: we desperately need good quality jobs; the Federal government needs to produce these jobs as the private sector isn’t; the new jobs should be in the green economy, improving our infrastructure and energy efficiency; this new “New Deal” program could be easily financed by transferring money from our bloated military budget.

The film focuses on North Adams, Massachusetts, as its blue collar residents try to make it in a small city where the factories have closed.   Despite the opening of a massive museum of contemporary art housed in an abandoned factory complex near the center of town, unemployment and poverty remain high. What if the 48 million dollars in Federal taxes that local residents paid to fund the Afghan and Iraq wars from 2001 to 2012 were instead diverted to much-needed social and environmental programs in this city of 14,000 people? According to the National Priorities Project, the transfer of those military funds alone could bring solar energy to every household; provide free college tuition for hundreds of students; and supply free health care to more than 13 hundred local residents. And these are just a few examples of the benefits of conversion.

Nation-wide, polling shows that Americans generally favor much more progressive policies than our government officials and politicians offer, and would likely support the documentary’s key points. More than three quarters of Americans favor Federal programs that would put men and women to work on vital infrastructure programs; by a margin of 59% to 31%, Americans favor developing alternative energy sources like wind and solar power as opposed to more oil, gas and coal; by wide margins Americans would prefer to cut military spending rather than Social Security or Medicare; and 67% would vote to tax the rich (those earning one million dollars or more a year) to lower the U.S. budget deficit.

So, given these attitudes, why is the country still stuck in economic stagnation with widespread unemployment, poverty and despair?   Clearly, those in power aren’t listening or don’t care what ordinary Americans want. The power of money has expanded enormously in political campaigns and lobbying, and both major political parties have moved to the right. And while there have been attempts at grass-roots rebellion, some real sparks –Wisconsin, Occupy and now the Fast Food Workers — the historical vehicles of progressive change, the Democratic Party and organized labor, have generally abandoned that role.

Were unions to regain some of their previous power and progressive thrust, as a key stalwart of the Democratic Party base, the Democrats could certainly be pushed to the Left. Americans still view unions favorably, as more than 60% see them as needed to protect workers, even though union membership stands at an historic low, with only about 11% of American workers enrolled.

Given that pro-union perspective, it’s instructive to turn to two worker-oriented organizations, both of which are situated to move organized labor not only to the left, but to political places where most Americans actually find themselves. The older of the two is U.S. Labor Against the War, founded in 2003 to oppose the threatened war against Iraq. Its founders, remembering organized labor’s overall support of the Vietnam war, wanted it to be different this time around, to provide a voice and an instrument for labor to say “No” to war.   Besides campaigning to get the AFL-CIO to officially oppose the Iraq war in 2005, USLAW made connections with rank and file Iraqi unions, humanizing Iraqi workers for an American audience and linking up with those workers who opposed the US invasion as well as the undemocratic nature of the Iraqi state. USLAW’s affiliates include three national unions, a half dozen state federations, regional organizations covering the varied geographical areas of the US, and numerous local unions spanning the spectrum of occupations. In addition to working towards a demilitarization of US foreign policy, “pursuing a just transition to an environmentally sustainable economy” stands as a key principle of USLAW.

This brings us to the second organization positioned to provide labor with a home and a voice to move to the left, focusing on jobs and the environment. The United Steelworkers union and the Sierra Club founded the Blue-Green Alliance (BGA) in 2006 and its members now include some eight national unions, three environmental organizations and the Union of Concerned Scientists.  In following through on its mission to support clean energy jobs in a healthy environment, the BGA has worked to oppose trade agreements that lacked enforceable labor and environmental rules, has pushed for job creation through investment in renewable energy and has worked with mayors across the Midwest to reduce carbon emissions in their cities.

Clearly, not all unions are ready to sign on to either USLAW or BGA. For example, when the BGA came out in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, it brought condemnation from the International Laborers union, one of at least four unions that favor the pipeline.   Realistically, it would be difficult for unions whose members work on military contracts to call for cutbacks in the military budget. Without guarantees for comparable jobs in a new, Green economy, moralistic arguments against coal production in West Virginia or missile manufacturing in California cannot be expected to get very far.

When audiences outside of North Adams view “Farewell to Factory Towns?” they recognize their own communities, be they Willimantic, CT, Erie, PA or Kingston, NY. They also know that it will take a protracted struggle, and more than a few sparks, to bring us to that place where good quality, good paying jobs abound in a new, green economy.

But as Labor Day 2014 fast approaches, we should remember that even though our elected leaders remain far from even thinking about that goal, a significant part of the American people know that it is necessary.

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