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Monday, January 17, 2005

When Will Democrats Give a Hang About Labor?

With all the flap over Bernard Kerik and Alberto Gonzales, George Bush is probably palpably relieved that his nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns, breezed through his Senate Agriculture Committee hearings with a few paltry nods in the direction of Mad Cow Disease.

Not to be dismissive of Mad Cow Disease (because I expect it to go full throttle one of these days), but largely overlooked in the Committee hearing was Johanns completely shitty record when it comes to labor. Anyone who has seen Barbara Kopple's Oscar winning documentary American Dream knows how hard it's been for labor unions to hold themselves together and maintain any kind of decent wage for their members in the meat processing industry. And Johanns, as governor, has certainly done his best to give a leg up to union busters.

One of the most successful tactics that the meat packing industry has utilized in dismantling the power of unions has been slashing wages, and then when workers go on strike, hiring illegal immigrants to replace them at a fraction of the cost. They like it even better because illegal immigrants don't file a lot of complaints about dangerous conditions in an industry known for its horrible history of worker safety.

Unions themselves have long been aware that rather than blame illegal aliens themselves in an orgy of jingoism, or resort to ridiculous O'Reilly-esque solutions like building a fence around the United States, the best way to protect their membership from unfair competition for jobs is for the government to monitor companies who hire illegal aliens and make those companies comply with the laws of the land which still, at this moment in time, prohibit such practices..

So during 1998 and 1999, the INS launched a campaign known as Operation Vanguard in which they went through Nebraska meatpacking plant personnel files and forced companies into compliance. It was a hugely successful program -- or would have been, except that Governor Johanns (who has accepted hefty campaign contributions from big agribusiness in the past) stepped in on behalf of his contributors and got the DOJ to kill the program.

As has been noted on several lefty blogs lately, organized labor is getting short shrift in the Democratic Party, and it's time for that to end. As unions grow weaker and weaker, the power of corporations grow stronger and stronger and the ever increasing salary gap between labor and management is nothing short of a criminal unholy embarrassment. And the blue collar worker who is getting completely screwed over in the equation is left with no party that looks out for his (or her) overriding interest, economic security -- mostly because in recent years the support for labor has been an exceedingly un-glamourous cause.

And I will argue 'till I'm blue in the face that this is the key to re-taking the South; it is a progressive way to seize command of an issue (immigration reform) that has extremely strong popular support (upwards of 80%), by tying it to an oft-neglected but extremely righteous issue (propping up organized labor). And when push comes to shove I maintain that the average Southerner cares a lot more about the practical matter of being displaced from his job than he does about a few theoretical lesbian feminist atheists he is likely to never cross paths with.

The Democrats have the opportunity to show the Republicans up for the hypocrites they are on this one, and on an issue that promises to be the mother of all wedge issues. It's already threatening to tear the GOP apart, 'cos Tancredo (R-CO) just won't let it alone. So why not use this opportunity to make a little noise and give the subject a nudge prior to Johann's confirmation? It would demonstrate that the Democrats are worthy of working people's support, as well as give GWB a good swift kick right when he needs one. 'Cos the Kerik nomination made him look like a fool, his slow response to Tsunami relief made him look like a callous fool, and Iraq is a giant pustule on his forehead that just grows bigger every day.