Statement on Unions and Politics
Why Should Unions be in Politics?
Don't we have enough to do just coping with collective bargaining and workplace problems?
Unions and the World Around Us
Unions don't exist in a vacuum. Our strength and ability to service our members is affected by the general climate around us. This climate includes:
- Rights which affect unions as organizations: the right of unions to exist, to organize without harassment, to strike, to bargain over the issues that affect us (as opposed, for example, to facing government wage controls).
- Legislated standards and social programs which can reinforce collective bargaining goals: national medicare, health and safety legislation, equal pay and affirmative action, pensions and pension indexation, voluntary overtime, plant closure legislation, unemployment insurance and fair taxation.
- Economic policy which affects our potential gains and our potential power. A strong economy lays the base for more wealth to share. Full employment gives us the confidence and power to take on the corporations, while high levels of unemployment undermine us. Free trade threatens our jobs while managed trade makes possible job guarantees.
Affecting this general climate around us is "politics".
Workers as Citizens
Our lives obviously extend beyond the workplace. We are citizens and members of communities, and so care about the liveability of our cities, the pollution of our environment, the schools our children attend, the availability and standards for childcare, the parks and facilities available for sports and entertainment.
And we care about social equality within our communities and within our country: about the disabled, about discrimination, about the lives of the aged, about poverty and homelessness.
All this is "Politics".
Individual and Collective Politics
But why can't we be involved in all these issue as individuals? Why is union politics necessary?
The political power of a worker, when casting his or her vote, does not match the political power of the stockholders who own the companies that employ us. Those with control over the productive wealth in our economy not only influence election campaigns with the money they have, but also influence elected politicians with their threats to scale back modernization plans, invest elsewhere, import more and export less, close down plants and destroy communities.
Such influence is used to affect everything we've been discussing earlier; union rights, legislated standards, social programs, taxation, inequality, the environment, the quality of the cities and communities where we live.
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The most important workplace lesson we have learned over the years was that, individually, the worker is in no position to challenge management. Collective action is absolutely fundamental to defend our interests and achieve our goals. The same lesson is true politically.
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To balance the political power that employers have, workers must go beyond trying to act as individual citizens and move on towards acting collectively. Our unions are a fundamental base for such collective political action.
Moreover, we should be proud, not defensive, about expanding the union's role to include politics.
The involvement of unions beyond collective bargaining is fundamental to a democratic society. Unions provide a base for challenging society's domination by the corporate few and for putting forth other priorities and alternative policies.
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Think what politics - and life - in our country would have been like if unions hadn't led the fight for pensions, medicare, and unemployment insurance. Consider what kind of political debate there would have been if unions weren't actively involved in opposing free trade.