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Retiring labor champion knows how to rebuild the nation

Rochester Business Journal
May 22, 2009
John Sweeney, our AFL-CIO president since 1995, has announced his retirement this year after 14 years of service to workers throughout the United States and in solidarity with workers throughout the world.

"We all know there are tough times ahead," he wrote earlier this year, "but 2009 gives us a jolt of hope for the change we need. Here are 10 simple truths to guide our work-and our elected leaders' work-every day of 2009."

Sweeney's "10 Truths for 2009":

1. We can't fix the economy by hurting workers. Workers didn't tank the economy. We built it. Working families are the economy.

2. Rescuing the economy will require investments-in jobs, infrastructure, health care and more. We can't get out of a hole this deep without building a big ladder.

3. Rebuilding our broken economy gives us the opportunity to get it right this time. We've seen that an economy built on debt and speculation won't work. Rampant deregulation won't work. Corporations and anti-worker leaders have kicked the legs of government and wages out from under the economic table. No wonder it collapsed. Replacing the economic "legs" of family-supporting wages and benefits and responsible rules will work.

4. We need to stop pretending that American employers can or should compete with companies in countries that subsidize industry, pay for workers' health care or trample labor and environmental protections. America's employers need a level playing field created by raising standards here and abroad, not lowering standards in a global race to the bottom.

5. It's time for change. America voted for it. America needs it. We demand it. For too long our country has been headed in the wrong direction. It's time to turn around America.

6. Progressive, pro-working-family candidates won resoundingly in the 2008 elections. If we allow a minority of Senate Republicans to block our priorities or impose their unpopular will on the majority, we have had our votes stolen.

7. Corporate officials who through fraud, negligence or greed cost workers and retirees their jobs, savings, home equity and retirement security should get jail terms, not government handouts.

8. Economic injustice and inequality are intolerable and should not be allowed to survive this new year. The average CEO makes $40,556 every working day, more than $10,000 over what the average worker makes in a year. A woman earns less than 80 cents for every dollar a man earns. African Americans' median weekly earnings are $150 less than those of white workers; for Latinos, the difference is $210 a week. The richest 10 percent of U.S. households have 71 percent of our wealth. Income and wealth inequality are gaping, growing and they are tearing apart what should be one nation.

9. U.S. labor law doesn't say corporations and the government must tolerate workers forming unions. It doesn't say corporations and government must allow unions if after using every trick in the books they can't stop them. The National Labor Relations Act explicitly says this nation's policy is to encourage collective bargaining and union representation for workers. You wouldn't know that from seeing what corporations do-and what the government has been allowing them to do-to workers who try to form unions and bargain for a better life. Let's restore the law of the land by enacting the Employee Free Choice Act.

10. America is meant to be "of the people, by the people, for the people"-all the people, not the few. We can renew America's promise by renewing national commitment to our founding values.

As Sweeney says, our country must act on these principles. We must abandon the unrestrained greed that led us down this dark path. With no more corporate loopholes and excuses, we must again stand up and demand to be restored to our place as a global superpower-not only through military strength, but also through the strength of our workplaces, our capacity to manufacture and the way in which we treat our employees.

We can no longer afford to transfer wealth to the top in a deregulated climate and hope it trickles down to benefit the rest of us. This has given us a redistribution of wealth to the richest with regular cycles of boom and bust, each one worse than the last, just as it did before 1932.

Good jobs and a strong safety net that includes adequate incomes, education, housing and health care, even during layoffs, create economic demand. Businesses and entrepreneurs step in to meet this demand, creating more wealth and more jobs. This is the real magic of the free market.

President Sweeney may be retiring with our adoration, but the movement shall carry on.

James Bertolone is president of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also is president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 215.

05/22/2009 (C) Rochester BUsiness Journal

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