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Reagan's Cruelest Legacy? Labor Unions Will Never Get a Fair Shake

Labor Unions Will Never Get a Fair Shake


This year will mark the 20th anniversary of a defining moment in the history of the Republican party, one that reminds us of just how extreme the Republicans’ devotion is to unimpeded turbo-capitalism, and how phony their professed commitment to "family values."

In 1988, President Reagan vetoed a bill that would have placed a limit on the number of minutes that commercials could air on children’s television shows. The bill, which passed the House and Senate, would have restricted weekday commercials on kids’ shows to 12 minutes per hour, and weekend commercials to 10 minutes per hour. Apparently, Congress felt it necessary to shelter America’s impressionable children from being manipulated and exploited by companies looking to recruit new consumers.

Reagan vetoed the bill because he viewed it as unconstitutional, claiming that it would unjustly restrict a sponsor’s right to "freedom of expression." Reagan stated that when it came to such matters as the amount of commercial time on television, it was best to let the market decide what was enough and what was too much.

Of course, what this really boiled down to was profit. When it came to a choice between limiting an opportunity to make money or protecting children from being bombarded by predatory sponsors, all that noble Republican rhetoric about preserving family values turned out to be just that . . . rhetoric. The bill was subsequently passed, in 1990 (even though George H.W. Bush refused to sign it), and remains on the books today.

So what’s this got to do with labor unions? Actually, it ties in with Reagan’s cherished regard for freedom of expression.

One of the more disturbing statistics to turn up during the last seven years (one that had nothing to do with Iraq, New Orleans, the trade deficit, government surveillance, subprime loans, criminal cronyism, $100-a barrel oil, recession, et al) was the report that, while only 12% of the workforce is unionized, a whopping 60% of America’s workers have indicated that they’d be "interested" in belonging to a labor union.

This discrepancy between those who belong to a union, and those who would consider joining one, is not only staggering, it speaks volumes for the demoralized state of organized labor in this country and the concerted "reign of terror" being waged against unions by the Bush administration.

That 60% of working people would express even a casual interest in joining a union should not be played down or trivialized. It isn’t the same vague, day-dreamy sort of thing as, say, stating that 60% of the population would one day like to visit England or run with the bulls in Pamplona. There’s a huge difference here.

Declaring that one would consider joining a workers’ collective is to take a profoundly ideological stand. Moreover, it’s a symptom of an underlying problem, a sign that something is ailing the American worker. And the fact that the Bush administration has, through the courts, the legislature and the media, managed to keep the union rolls from growing is evidence of just how vehemently anti-labor the Republican party is.

Despite all their talk about individualism, "freedom of expression," the will of the people, workers taking the initiative to advance themselves economically, etc., when it comes to employees choosing to join a union, the Republicans are decidedly undemocratic.

In fact, when it comes to keeping unions out of the workplace (Wal-Mart immediately comes to mind), the Republicans are downright totalitarian. They not only want to keep unions out, they have zero interest in allowing employees to vote on the matter, and will do everything in their power to prevent them from doing so. In their desire to keep business pristinely unfettered and acquisitive, the Republicans are almost Stalinist in their approach.

Unions need to showcase this perverse trait. As we move closer toward the November election, union leadership needs to play up this anti-democratic angle by reminding people that, when it comes to workers trying to control their own destiny, Republicans are totalitarian "elitists."

People can think or say what they like about labor unions, but employees should have the right to decide whether or not to join one, without fear of being harassed, threatened or intimidated. Accordingly, labor unions need to expose the Republicans for what they are: The party that favors the economic exploitation of children, and seeks to deny adult workers the right to free expression.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: