Addressing the question of what labor wants, in 1893, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, declared: “We want more school houses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more constant work and less crime; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful and childhood more happy and bright. These in brief are the primary demands made by the Trade Unions in the name of labor. These are the demands made by labor upon modern society and in their consideration is involved the fate of civilization.”
Gompers was careful and deliberate in his approach to politics and he bequeathed to the American labor movement a tradition—evident in the Democratic Party primary in 2016—that tends against favoring challengers in primaries when the incumbent or favorite has been OK for the labor movement, even though the challenger might well be better. I expect that this tradition will make it difficult for my candidacy to gain union endorsements, but I wish to make it clear that I will seek to champion labor and its rights regardless.
A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in 2007 found that “one-in-seven union organizers and activists are illegally fired while trying to organize unions at their place of work.” Here, as elsewhere in our society, we must insist on the rule of law as against a greed-laden management class that finds it “cheaper” to break the law and pay a fine rather than behave as it should.
Beyond supporting the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, I would like to stress that that I favor card-check (majority sign-up in organizing) and—as an advocate of massive infrastructure investment spending—also strongly support Davis-Bacon (prevailing wages) on public works projects. If elected, my door will always be open to trade unionists and progressives generally.
In my outlook, I have been strongly influenced by James Wilson—the most brilliant jurist among the founding fathers—who was not only a leading voice in the constitutional convention, but who served on its committee of detail and actually drafted much of the Constitution’s language. For Wilson, we—the American people—are “sovereigns without subjects.” This was—and is—a succinct way of stating the most basic ideal of the American Revolution. It took a civil war, and the civil rights movement, to even begin to make this true for African-Americans. It took the suffragists, and the women’s rights movement generally, to even begin to make this true for women. And it took the organization of trade unions, and the labor movement generally, to even begin to keep this true for working people—to prevent the power of the state being used on behalf of corporations to make subjects of workers. I remember a conversation I had in the late 1990s with Lane Kirkland, a former president of the AFL-CIO, who maintained that in the decades ahead all of us would have to relearn the lessons of the late nineteenth century and refight many of the battles that we had thought long since won. He was prescient in many ways.
So was Gompers. In 1898, he cautioned against those who imagined that they were capable of making progress more quickly: “There are some who, dissatisfied with what they term the slow progress of the labor movement, would have us hasten it by what they lead themselves to believe is a shorter route. No intelligent workman who has passed years of his life in the study of the labor problem, expects to wake up any fine morning to find the hopes of these years realized over night, and the world on the flood-tide of the millennium. With the knowledge that the past tells us of the slow progress of the ages, of trial and travail, mistakes and doubts yet unsolved; with the history of the working class bedewed with the tears of a thousand generations and tinged with the life-blood of numberless martyrs, the trade unionist is not likely to stake his future hopes on the fond chance of the many millions turning philosophers in the twinkling of an eye.”