Cohen Urges Massive Coalition to Restore Democracy

May 11, 2012

WASHINGTON (PAI)--Progressive groups and individuals, including labor, Latinos, African-Americans, women and students must unite in a years-long campaign to restore and reclaim both workers rights and U.S. democracy, CWA President Larry Cohen says.

In a wide-ranging May 10 speech to the Women’s National Democratic Club in D.C., Cohen – the AFL-CIO Organizing Committee chair and CWA’s former organizing director before ascending to the top job -- said that otherwise, the nation would continue to slip under the increasing control of corporate interests and their money.

Those interests and their actions have led to the decline of workers’ rights, where unions represent 6.9 percent of the private workforce, a share lower than when famed labor leader Eugene V. Debs was running the American Railroad Union in 1900.

Without restoration of political rights, workers’ rights will not be restored, he said.

Cohen spoke as the presidential general election campaign launched in earnest, but the campaign he described will last longer than one election cycle. He estimates at least “seven to 10 years” of concentrated effort.

And it would have to go beyond normal party politics, too. Cohen said labor helped get Obama and Congressional Democrats elected in 2008, but failed to keep the pressure on.

As a result, 400 progressive measures – everything from the Employee Free Choice Act to immigration reform – passed the House in 2009-10, then fell victim to GOP filibusters in the Senate.  And in an early 2009 White House meeting, Cohen said, Obama sidetracked EFCA “until after they did health care.”  The feisty Cohen was named as the union leader to argue the point, but he admitted “that was a losing battle.”

Left in the lurch, he said labor must campaign for “democracy and economic justice” at the same time, to increase its clout and those of its allies -- and  keep the drive going between elections  to force lawmakers it elects to approve pro-worker laws. “The limits of democracy alone have blocked us,” Cohen declared.

Cohen cited a graphic, from a new CWA booklet for the campaign, with a high wall that workers must scale.  The high wall that blocks achievement, he said, is built of four things: Senate filibusters, the huge flow of corporate money into politics, the lack of legalization of immigrants, and voter suppression legislation proposed or enacted in 38 states.“

ALEC and others like it know they can’t win elections unless they shrink the electorate,” he said, referring to the Radical Right business-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, the secretive author of anti-worker, union-busting, voter suppression and other Right Wing laws.

The coalition Cohen envisions is in the booklet, Building A Movement For Economic Justice And Democracy, would have a potential total of 50 million people. 

That includes 15 million union members, at least 10 million Latinos, at least 10 million African-Americans, 5.2 million members of progressive women’s groups such as Emily’s List and NOW, 4 million students, 5 million senior citizens and millions of others in progressive religious and community organizations.

“If we can blend together these groups” to fight for both democracy and workers’ rights at the same time and over a long stretch of years, the effort can succeed, he said. 

He compared the workers rights/democracy drive to two other successful mass movements.  One was the 30-year effort, led by former Brazilian Metal Workers President Luiz Ignacio “Lula” da Silva to build unions there.  It eventually led to Lula’s election to the Brazilian presidency – and to cutting poverty by empowering workers to bargain for living wages that let them buy food.

The other comparison Cohen used is the “Arab Spring,” which started with a Tunisian street vendor burning himself to death in protest of his repressive government’s restrictions.  It set off popular uprisings which toppled first that dictatorship, followed by those in Algeria and Egypt.  The uprisings continue.

The alternative to such a huge and coordinated drive is dire, Cohen said.

“If we don’t focus on these democracy issues, we’re leading people around and around in a circle, and we’re like Sisyphus, constantly pushing the rock up the hill” only to have it roll back down again, he said.  “But if we can rebuild an offense” on democracy and “a vision to recapture the American dream, then that’s what we’ll come up with.”                                                              


Press Associates, Inc. (PAI) – 5/11/2012