Think again

Channeling Sam Gompers


Advice to state candidates who want to speak to working families on schools, health care and jobs: Try channeling that old labor war horse Samuel Gompers.

Listen to what Gompers, the first president of the American Federation of Labor, said in 1893: “We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice.”

To Gompers’ call for more schools and jobs that pay a fair wage, you might want to add affordable health care and retirement security. But, with those few updates, you pretty much have a political agenda that would get the nod from 90 percent of working families in the 21st century.

Still, it’s not the list of issues that matters so much as how you present them.

Fast forward 113 years and ask Gompers to comment on our school funding problems. Do you think he’d say anything like the following?

“We want more schoolhouses, if we can enact systems development charges to build them; more books, if we can divert the corporate kicker to buy them; more learning, if we can establish a sales tax to keep our schools open for a full school year.”

No way. But that’s exactly how progressive politicians in Oregon often talk about their “agenda for working families.”

Progressives have been sucked in to the supply side of politics, the territory of taxes and balanced budgets, where the anti-government forces have all the advantages. The supply-siders cut the taxes that support education; then they blame teachers’ health and retirement benefits when we have to close schools. They cut the funds that support the Oregon Health Plan and promote high-deductible health insurance schemes to shift more costs to working families.

Then, they ask those who support good schools, affordable health care and all the things that government should be able to do for working families, “How are you going to pay for it?” And, because you want to be fiscally responsible, you take that question seriously and try to answer it.

At the federal level, the Bush Administration has had no such compunctions about cutting taxes for the wealthy and financing its war in Iraq. As a result, they’ve racked up new debts totaling $23,000 for every household in the country. Those debts will burden our children and grandchildren. But imagine if every household’s $23,000 was used instead to make college affordable for working families and guarantee health care for all children? We lost an opportunity to make life better for future generations because we didn’t demand these things first and figure out how to pay for them later.

Back at the state level, where we have to live with balanced budgets, progressives agonize over “unfunded mandates.” How can you propose smaller class sizes, for example, without detailing how you’re going to pay for them? That’s a valid question, but it is also a crippling one. When you accept the constraints of a state budget continually eroded by special-interest tax breaks, you never get to make a compelling case for what government can and should be doing for working families before it cuts taxes for corporations.

To his credit, State Rep. Mitch Greenlick is channeling Gompers with an initiative for universal health care that he is sponsoring for the November ballot. His initiative would establish health care as a constitutional right and tell the Legislature to figure out how to pay for it. That’s an unfunded mandate that’s worth a full legislative session to work out.

And when it comes to schools, say you want a full school year, up-to-date textbooks and classrooms that are not overcrowded — and that you won’t leave Salem without them. We had that kind of education system a generation ago in Oregon, so why not now?

By the way, our state constitution doesn’t say that that you have to balance expenditures to match available revenues. It says just the opposite (in Article IX, Section 2) – that “the Legislative Assembly shall provide for raising revenue sufficiently to defray the expenses of the State.” In other words, first figure out what we need, then figure out how to pay for it.

And, if you have to talk about taxes, say, “We don’t need new taxes, we need old taxes, when the rich and the corporations paid their fair share for our schools and our health care.”

We are a far richer country today than we were when Gompers concluded, “We do want more, and when it becomes more, we shall still want more.” But, as the productivity of our workers and the wealth of our country have increased, demanding more has given way to doing more with less and settling for smaller and smaller shares of what Gompers called the fruits of our labor.

So, this is not the time to become entangled in debates about how we’re going to pay for the things that can make life better for working families. Listen to Gompers. This is the time to stoke the demand side of politics. Demand more, because America’ working families deserve more.

Tim Nesbitt is former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. For more information, check out the Oregon AFL-CIO online at