It's Time to Give Voters the Liberalism They Want
Don't believe pundits who say there's a centrist mandate.
By THOMAS FRANK
IT IS possible, I suppose, that the pundits are right and the public
didn't really mean it when it elected a liberal Democrat president and
gave Democrats even larger majorities in both houses of Congress.
Maybe America really wants the same nice, reassuring, centrist thing
But it is also possible that, for once, the public weighed the big
issues and gave a clear verdict on the great economic questions of the
last few decades. It is likely that we really do want universal health
care and some measure of wealth-spreading, and even would like to see
it become easier to organize a union in the workplace, however
misguided such ideas may seem to the nation's institutions of higher
That was the sense I got when I met last week with officers of the
Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Their mood was
optimistic -- as well it should be, since labor unions spent some $450
million during the 2008 races, orchestrated massive voter outreach,
and saw their candidates triumph.
What is coming, they believe, is not triangulation redux. This was,
SEIU President Andy Stern told me, "a clear election not on small
things." Mr. Obama "talked about what people wanted to hear about," as
opposed to the culture wars. "We've redefined the center," Mr. Stern
said. "Universal health care is now centrist."
Near the top of labor's agenda is the Employee Free Choice Act, a.k.a.
"card check," the legislation that will make it easier for workers to
form a union by signing cards instead of by secret ballot in the
workplace. Mr. Obama was a co-sponsor of last year's version of the
card-check bill and has vowed to sign it when it is finally passed by
the incoming Congress.
Business interests, on the other hand, spent many millions in 2008
trying to make card check a liability for Democratic senate
candidates. The strategy failed, and now they are gearing up in
Washington for the coming confrontation, which one Chamber of Commerce
official has already dubbed "Armageddon."
During the campaign, you will recall, the debate over card check was
supposed to be about principle, about democracy, about the sacredness
of the secret ballot. However, as I pointed out a few months ago,
union-certification elections often don't meet the most basic
democratic requirements. Supervisors routinely hold captive-audience
meetings with workers in preparation for elections; management
commonly threatens to close up shop if the union wins; antiunion
employees are frequently rewarded and pro-union employees are
So it may not surprise you to learn that democracy isn't really the
main concern of card-check's opponents. It's unions themselves.
Changing the rules will make it easier to organize them.
And more unions, in turn, means higher wages, better benefits, more
say for workers in business decisions, and all that other awful stuff.
If Wal-Mart employees get a union, it's a pretty fair bet they won't
have to work after they've punched out.
Card check is about power. Management has it, workers don't, and
business doesn't want that to change. Consider the remarks made by
Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott at an analyst meeting on Oct. 28, when he was
asked about the possible coming of card check: "We like driving the
car and we're not going to give the steering wheel to anybody but us."
And hear the lamentations of the billionaires. "This is the demise of
a civilization," moaned Bernie Marcus, cofounder and former CEO of The
Home Depot, during an Oct. 17 conference call about card check. "This
is how a civilization disappears. I'm sitting here as an elder
statesman, and I'm watching this happen, and I don't believe it."
Mr. Marcus sketched out the doomsday scenario for his listeners, with
unions going after what he called the "low hanging fruit" and
proceeding to organize workers in industry after industry. He had
taken it upon himself to notify the nation's CEOs of the danger, but
they were not yet grabbing their guns. "This is as important as
anything that's ever happened to these companies. And they're not
reacting, and they're not fighting. The old time fighters are gone."
But in the class war, as in the real deal, there are always ways of
motivating the yellow. "If a retailer has not gotten involved with
this, if he has not spent money on this election, if he has not sent
money to Norm Coleman and these other guys," Mr. Marcus said,
apparently referring to Republican senators facing tough re-election
fights, then those retailers "should be shot; should be thrown out of
their goddamn jobs."
Mr. Marcus may snarl, but he doesn't bark. His is the voice of a
business class rediscovering its ancestral zeal for combat. Liberals
should take heed. If they thought the "Harry and Louise" campaign that
sank Hillary Clinton's health-care reform was dirty, they should know
they ain't seen nothing yet.
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Thomas Frank was born and raised in Kansas City. He graduated from
Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas (1983),
and from the University of Virginia (1987). He founded The Baffler
magazine in 1988, and he edits it to this day. He has a PhD in
American History (U. of Chicago 1994) and is the author of three
books, all of them having to do with the cultural inversions of our
times: The Conquest of Cool (1997), about the advertising industry;
One Market Under God (2000) about the myths of the New Economy; and
What's the Matter With Kansas? (2004) about the red-state mindset. His
book about conservative governance, The Wrecking Crew, was published