$ and Sense editorial: We Have the Power—How Will We Use It?

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June Zaccone

Dec 31, 2023, 10:13:16 AM12/31/23
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From the Editors
We Have the Power—How Will We Use It?
In 2021, the inelegantly named Expanded Child Tax Credit (ECTC) significantly increased the federal government’s financial support to parents. It turned out that giving people money made them less poor. This one change alone cut child poverty in half in a single year. In 2022, in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, Democrats let the credit expire. It turned out that taking money from people made them poorer. Millions of children were thrown back into poverty, twice as many as the year before Washington took the credit away.

This grim natural experiment demonstrates what almost everyone outside the halls of Congress and other rightwing echo chambers already takes for granted: the government has the power to make those in need significantly better off, and not just in a vague, abstract way in some utopian future. It can do it right now, using tools we already have. What should we think when what passes for the party of working people, in full control of the government, can’t be relied on to maintain aid to the neediest in our society,
even immediately after seeing how effective such measures are? What do we do when the government has the power to improve our lives, and chooses not to use it? Voting the right people into office is surely an important part of the equation, but the
expiration of the ECTC shows that voting alone won’t do it.

Another big part of the answer comes in Barry Eidlin’s feature, “Union Democracy Stands Up.” Eidlin examines the late-20th-century decline and recent comeback of the Teamsters
and the UAW, two of the country’s largest unions. In both unions, small but scrappy groups of rank-and-file members spent decades organizing against corruption and concessions
and for greater member control—including direct leadership elections, which are still extremely rare when it comes to deciding who will lead the labor movement. More recently, insurgent leadership turned both unions into fighting machines that won record contracts and dramatically improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of members. Whether the pieces came together slowly (as with the Teamsters) or with surprising speed (as with the UAW), the events of the last few years show that workers have the power not only to set the direction of their own unions at a national scale, but also to make their bosses pay up big. And UAW president Shawn Fain in particular has stressed that under his leadership, the union intends to fight not just for its members, but “for the entire working class.”

What that looks like, exactly, remains to be seen, though Fain has already taken one big step: publicly calling on other unions to negotiate their next contracts to end at the same time the UAW’s agreement with the Big Three expires, on May 1, 2028. If other
unions follow suit, they will be planting the seeds for a general strike, the kind of activity that could put not just hundreds of thousands, but millions of people into open conflict with their bosses.

Over the past decade, teachers’ unions in Chicago, West Virginia, Los Angeles, and elsewhere have shown that strikes have a direct impact on public spending. Striking teachers repeatedly forced governments intent on austerity back to the table to invest
more in workers and students. Whether something comparable on a national scale will happen in 2028 is far from certain. But it would have been unimaginable just five years ago for the president of a major union, elected directly by the membership, to even discussthe prospect seriously.

What makes it possible to contemplate this scenario is union democracy—building meaningful democracy in our unions is a step toward more meaningful democracy in our country. Most people most of the time want a fairer, kinder, and gentler society. An entrenched minority who benefit from the status quo stand in the way, and with little organized pressure to oppose them, politicians mostly take their side. But as the UAW and the Teamsters show, large groups of ordinary people can be organized to create even stronger pressure. Perhaps, years from now, we’ll look back at the union democracy movement as the catalyst that transformed our latent power into an economy that works for everyone.

Dollars and Sense is an excellent publication, providing economic news and analysis in accessible language. This issue also includes a commentary on unemployment by NJFAN's Frank Stricker. jz

June Zaccone
National Jobs for All Network
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