Which Side Are You On, Boys?

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In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch takes at look how recent corporate scandals have created a climate favorable to union leaders and their cause.

Some Democrats were upset when the stock market was in free fall in July that voters blamed corporations rather than President Bush. One Democrat who wasn't too unhappy with that was John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. The labor movement has been going after corporate greed and corruption for years and finally the mainstream was on its side. President Bush started sounding like Ralph Nader on the issue of corporate accountability.

On July 30 Sweeney gave a rousing speech at a noontime rally on Wall Street as part of the AFL-CIO's "No More Business As Usual" campaign. "When corporate criminals invade our workplaces and our markets to steal our jobs and our savings, we must react every bit as when thieves enter our homes and try to bring harm to our loved ones," he said. The crowd roared and chimed in on the old Pete Seeger song, "Which side are you on, boys, which side on you on?"

Americans have generally been skeptical of big business, but labor unions recently have had a tough time translating those attitudes into political support. The Enron, Global Crossing and WorldCom scandals, combined with the shaky stock market, have created a climate which union leaders believe will be very favorable to their cause - and to Democratic candidates who chose to make it an issue.

A poll done by Peter Hart Research in mid-August for the AFL-CIO shows a bump in the number of non-union workers who say they'd vote to join a union if such a vote were held in their workplace today. In 1984 only 30 percent said they'd vote for a union, but by last year it was up to 42 percent. This summer 50 percent of non-union workers (and 58 percent of young workers) said they'd vote yes.

The poll also found a majority (58 percent) of Americans dissatisfied with the economy; 45 percent are concerned about their own financial futures and 44 percent believe they lack job security - that's up from 32 percent who were worried about job security a year ago. The attitudes toward corporations have gone from 42 percent positive, 25 percent negative a year ago to 39 percent negative, 30 percent positive today. And corporate CEOs get a 58 percent negative rating. "Public confidence in employers, which has never been very high, has also declined," says the report. "Fully two-thirds (66 percent) trust employers just some or not much at all." Workers over 50 are the most anxious and angry about the economy and corporate scandals.

The AFL-CIO is planning to spend $35 million on politics this year, mostly on behalf of Democratic candidates; the money is split between political ads and grassroots outreach. In July they launched a series of TV ads in eight states against Republican candidates who supported fast-track trade legislation. The ads, which ran in six House districts and two states (against Senator Susan Collins in Maine and Senator Tim Hutchinson in Arkansas), blamed the Republican legislators for putting American jobs at risk "by siding with big corporations." They are also focusing ads on prescription drugs for seniors and on the attempt to repeal the alternative minimum tax, two issues which they think get to the heart of people's anger against corporations that get preferential treatment and place profits over people.

Labor organizers are convinced these issues should be no-brainers for political candidates to embrace. Their poll shows that voters are very likely to vote for candidates who "protect employees in employers bankruptcy" and "give regular employees the same choices/protections as CEO's". John Sweeney talks about exercising the leverage of the $6 trillion in workers pension funds to achieve corporate responsibility, but union operatives aren't sure Democratic candidates will follow through with populist, anti-corporate rhetoric.

But, as we saw at the Democratic Leadership Council meeting in July, Joe Lieberman and others are counseling against excessive corporate bashing and are warning Democrats that voters who have money in the stock market will reject attacks on business. "It's all there, but they are listening to Mark Penn (the DLC pollster) and they're going to pull their punches," said one AFL-CIO executive.

But, John Sweeny and his brothers and sisters believe they are on a roll. With McCain-Feingold about to go into effect their ability to do the issue ads for and against political candidates may be in jeopardy in the next campaign. But their commitment to use modern communication techniques to organize workers is total and strengthening their own movement is their number one goal.

They're message to fellow Democrats who ignore the silver bullet seems to be "Don't blame me, I'm part of the union."