Why unions - and their members - should support Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader and L.A. Labor News Editor Jim Smith
by Jim Smith
Editor, L.A. Labor News

July 17 – A generational shift in the U.S. political scene is underway. The new and most important issue for every politician and every voter is becoming who is on the side of the corporations and who is on the side of the people (everyone else).

"Global capitalism versus the people" is becoming the rallying cry in the same way that "slave or free" was the issue in the generation leading up to the civil war and "winning the war" was the overwhelming political issue of the 1940s.

Poor and working-class people are beginning to abandon Democrats, who as a party abandoned Roosevelt's New Deal some years ago. Now, the Democrats have joined with the Republicans, who once called themselves the Party of Lincoln, to promote the interests of global corporate capitalism at any cost.

This has been a long evolutionary process for the two parties. What's new in 2000 is a growing revulsion with corporate political parties by millions of ordinary people Cut Prices, labor unions and nearly every other non-corporate segment of society.

Ralph Nader has every right to say "I told you so" to those who are just waking up to political realities. For more than 30 years he has tirelessly campaigned as a consumer advocate and has warned against the growing power and arrogance of the corporations. Labor has largely ignored him.

In the past, unions have addressed the ills of society, if at all, from the view of production - plant closings, layoffs, wages and violations of workers' rights. Nader spoke another language, that of people as consumers - product liability, high prices, HMO reform, education reform and corporate responsibility. Since Seattle, a growing number of labor leaders and activists have discovered that a one-dimensional analysis of the economy is insufficient. Workers are also consumers. Union members want to live in a healthy and pleasant environment as much as anyone else.

Does Ralph Nader care about production issues? Can he relate to people who live from paycheck to paycheck (or no paycheck to no paycheck)? What does he really know or care about unions?


In two remarkable speeches, one to the NAACP convention on July 11 and another at a union rally in San Jose last March, Nader made it clear that he understands, as no other candidate does, the conditions of the poor, people of color, women and the unions. In the San Jose speech, Nader discussed the importance of unions in a democratic society, and called for their transformation into "social-movement unionism," that is, as part of a grand alliance to improve people's well being.

Said Nader: "The early view of unions was a vision of a just society. The entire society's direction was the interest of those early union organizers. They weren't just interested in getting a decent standard of living for their workplace. But those early union philosophers and organizers were replaced by business unionism, or as one major union leader said, "What does American labor want? Here's my answer: More." And that played right into the hands of corporations and their divide-and-rule tactics of pitting labor against other less fortunate people in the society."

Nader then went on to describe how important a strong labor movement can be: "The only countervailing force of any organized significance in America today to global corporations are trade unions. And their membership, as a percent of overall labor, has shrunk precipitously. One reason is that our labor laws are much more difficult for workers who want to form unions than they are in Western Europe and Canada – this is something that should be pretty high on our public agenda this year."

Perhaps the most important contribution of Nader and his supporters to this election is his injection of real issues into the campaign. Neither Gore nor Bush want to talk about specifics. Such talk can only hurt their standing with one group or another, say their media handlers.

The major weakness of the Nader campaign is its lack of an organizational base. Nader is the presidential candidate of the Green Party, which is small and weak compared to the Democrats and Republicans, two institutionalized pillars of our society. (In July, the Los Angeles City Council gave the Democrats $4 million for their convention. Not even in Mexico, would such a blatant giveaway of public funds to a political party be allowed.)

However, this organizational weakness can be overcome, to some extent, by the most progressive segments of labor getting behind him with organizational clout. Whether the auto workers or the Teamsters ultimately support Nader is probably not as significant as what could happen if hundreds of local unions – and thousands of union activists – decide they've had enough of free trade, NAFTA, privatization and corporatization, union busting and downsizing.


Democratic spin doctors are already raising the "Fear-of-Bush" specter. It's likely to reach a deafening roar by election day. In many union organizing campaigns, the employer attempts to turn workers' hopes of better pay and conditions into irrational fear that a union victory will cause massive layoffs or that the company will close, thereby scaring the workers into voting against their best interest, a union. Likewise, the Gore campaign seems to have nothing going for it as a positive inducement to attract votes. Therefore, instilling fear that Nader will be a spoiler and put the right-wing Bush into office is the hammer it will continue to pound.

This fear campaign should not be underestimated. It can have a strong impact on those who have the most to lose or believe their fate is tied to the success of the Democrats. However, just as the present Supreme Court recently upheld the Miranda decision, a future Bush-appointed Court is unlikely to overturn Roe vs. Wade or past civil rights decisions. Some labor leaders and members also are fearful that they will lose the few crumbs that are thrown their way by Democratic politicians (even though labor law reform seems to have been the furthest thing from Bill Clinton's mind during the past eight years). It can be argued that our rights would be better protected with a Democratic Congress and a Republican President than vice versa.

Nader's response is worth considering. He says that if he is able to bring millions of voters to the polls who would not have otherwise bothered to vote, it could mean the election of a Democratic House and Senate. Presumably Nader voters will also vote for progressive Democrats since few Greens are running for Congress. (A notable exception is Medea Benjamin who is running a strong campaign in California where incumbent Diane Feinstein is far ahead of her Republican challenger.)

In addition, Nader boldly proposes that the Democrats could use a four-year cold shower in presidential politics. The national Democratic Party has been captured by the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of free-traders who have initiated and promoted the notorious "third-way" ideology. "Third way" European leaders, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, also are busy dismantling their countries strong labor movements and social benefits. The bottom line for the DLC and the "third way" is that anything standing in the way of (corporate) progress is backward and should be removed. This includes strong union contracts, welfare and government programs (except for corporate welfare). We can expect more of the same from "Mr. NAFTA," Al Gore, if he is elected.

The fight for the control of our planet against a small corporate elite is just beginning. The Nader campaign holds the promise of bringing anti-global capital protests and sentiment into the political arena where they can begin to force real dialogue and change.

In the final analysis, it's very simple: Nader is on our side. Gore and Bush are on the side of the global corporations.

(Jim Smith, <>, is a labor activist and editor of L.A. Labor News <http://www.LALabor.org>.