Think again

What will we say when the jeering stops?


It’s hard to resist a “we-told-you-so” response to the dramatic failures of the free traders, the tax cutters and the government shrinkers that we have witnessed this year.

We told them that CAFTA, like NAFTA, would drive more of our jobs overseas. CAFTA doesn’t take effect until January. But USA Today reported earlier this month that the Nicaraguan government is already providing crash courses in English so that workers there can staff new call centers for U.S. corporations. Now, even our lower-paying jobs are shopped to lower bidders abroad.

We told them that tax cuts, like credit cards, never pay for themselves. But the Bush Administration kept cutting taxes for the wealthy, and now our unpaid bills amount to $27,000 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. Well-meaning people are talking about debt relief for Third World countries, but how about debt relief for our own children and grandchildren?

We told them that their relentless attacks on government would eventually leave us with a nation unable to meet its most basic responsibilities to its citizens. Soon after George W. Bush took office, the conservatives’ ideologue-in-chief, Grover Norquist, stated that his goal was to shrink government until you can “drown it in the bathtub.” Four and a half years later, we saw the consequences of that philosophy, when our citizens were left to drown in the streets of an abandoned city.

The ideologues who have been driving the radical right agenda in this country are now careening from one collision with reality after another. There is something riveting about this moment. Heads are turning. More people are paying attention. And, we find ourselves eager to jeer the crashing and burning of an arrogant and ruthless political movement that was running down our jobs, mortgaging our future and abandoning our communities.

We told you so, we say now. But what will we say when the jeering stops?

Here’s one place to start. U.S. corporations are reaping record profits, and our economy has scaled new heights thanks to great surges in workers’ productivity. But, for all their hard work, retraining and innovation, American workers have been handed a declining share of our nation’s income. Too many of those workers have learned the wrong lessons from this experience. They don’t expect their jobs to get better, or they fear that if they demand more from their employers, they’ll lose their jobs altogether. Even worse, they don’t think that government can do much to help.

So we begin with expectations, as simple as the recognition that we deserve better from our jobs and our government.

Think back 70 years ago, at another time of profound economic crisis, when a failed government had abandoned working people to a failed free-market economy. Thanks to a resurgent union movement, working people demanded more from their employers and their elected officials. And what they got – a minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, Social Security and public works that put people back to work building the infrastructure for a revitalized private economy – laid the foundation for a thriving middle class for decades thereafter.

We did it then, we can do it now. Voters who have been indoctrinated with free-market rhetoric are still ready to support a higher minimum wage. Working people who have been cowed by corporate globalization still look to their elected officials to curb the profiteering of oil companies and drug companies. And, more Americans now think that we need government action to help solve our health care crisis.

These insights offer a hopeful starting point for how our union movement can begin to wage a new battle of ideas for working families in the corporate-controlled global economy.

For a good example of how one union is serving as a catalyst for “fresh, new ideas for a better America,” go to SEIU’s For another example of a good-jobs-and-better-government agenda, check out New York’s union-backed Working Families Party at And for a bold plan that can rejuvenate our economy as the New Deal’s reconstruction projects did two generations ago, check out the labor-friendly Apollo Alliance at, which promises “three million new jobs and freedom from foreign oil.”

This is a moment of eye-opening crisis that can yield mind-changing opportunities. There is a ferment of new ideas within our union movement that can overcome the sense of futility that has gripped too many working Americans and motivate a new politics of hope and opportunity.

We have witnessed the failures of the corporate free traders and the anti-government ideologues. Their agenda is spent. Now it’s up to us to do better.


Tim Nesbitt was, until Nov. 15, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. He will continue to contribute a column to the Northwest Labor Press. For more information, check out the Oregon AFL-CIO online at