Who Stands with Workers?

Senate cafeteria workers serve food to the most august politicians, to their staffers, their Gucci-shoed lobbyists and to Senate visitors. Yet they don't earn close to a living wage. Those who work full time still live in poverty.

Over the past months, these workers have walked out on the job, risking the work they need in order to demand decent wages and the right to organize. Last month, over two dozen Senate staffers, joined by Senator Sherrod Brown, held a brown bag lunch protest in solidarity with those workers. The employer -- the Compass Group, ironically a British-based corporation and its managing subsidiary the Restaurant Associates -- has ignored the workers' pleas and trampled their right to organize. The U.S. National Labor Relations Board has upheld charges regarding discriminatory and intimidating violations committed by managers at Restaurant Associates.

Now the two-decade long contract is under periodic review. Democratic senators -- led by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown -- are circulating a letter to the Compass Group CEO calling on him to lift the wages of the workers and to honor their right to organize. Every senator should be ashamed that the workers serving their food are forced to live in poverty, even as the senators -- right, left and center -- declaim regularly about the growing inequality and stagnant wages in this country.

Unions are essential building blocks to a democratic economy with a strong middle class. It isn't an accident that as union membership has declined, inequality has risen to new extremes. Unions are also central to an informed and engaged democracy. Members gain experience in democracy in organizing and bargaining collectively. Unions help inform and mobilize their members politically. Not surprisingly, voter turnout and interest have flagged as unions have declined. Even the conservative International Monetary Fund now accepts that unions are vital to an economy in which the blessings of growth are widely shared.

The importance of unions is crystal clear to those on the right, which is why they have waged an unrelenting war on them. Conservative activists like Grover Norquist call them a central pillar of Democratic strength and celebrate strategies to undermine them.

When Ronald Reagan, a self-described movement conservative, became president one of his first acts was to fire striking PATCO workers (a union that ironically had supported him), and declare open warfare on union organizing. Corporations -- none more brutally than Walmart, our largest employer -- have perfected strategies, legal and illegal, to squelch worker organizing. Deep pocket companies and ideologues have funded various fronts to wage constant public relations campaigns to slander unions and their leaders.

When conservative Republicans win an executive office, they know one of their priorities is to weaken unions. Our corporate-defined globalization strategy has purposefully put U.S. workers into competition with low-wage workers abroad. Cooperative strategies, like those of the Germans, designed to manage globalization to benefit companies and their workers, have been rejected out of hand.

These attacks have been relentless, pervasive and effective. Union membership continues to decline as a percentage of the private workforce. And public employee unions are coming under withering political and legal fire, as right-wing governors seek to crush them.

Democrats are happy to receive union support during election years, but many bizarrely don't get it. Fashionable publicists like Tom Friedman dismiss unions as outmoded in the flat earth economy that exists only in his imagination. Socially liberal dot.com billionaires see unions as alien to the disruptive economy. The Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party dismisses unions as part of the old Democratic coalition.

President Obama recently convened a White House meeting on the importance of a "workers' voice." He has stated that he would join a union were he a worker.

Yet, when Democrats had a majority at the beginning of his term, the president did nothing to drive labor law reform. He has issued a remarkable set of executive orders on procurement to lift the standards of federal contract workers, to raise the minimum wage and enforcing workplace laws and safety. Yet despite constant pressure, he has chosen not to issue an order giving preference to employers who recognize the rights of their workers to organize.

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt argued that the nation couldn't afford strikes and walkouts, so he required employers to make peace with their workers, allow them to organize and bargain collectively. Now, workers who are stripped of unions and decent contracts are striking across the country, disrupting service even in the U.S. Senate cafeteria. It is time for leaders to use procurement regulations to require companies to respect the right of the workers to organize and to bargain collectively.

If Democrats had even a whiff of common sense, of long-term strategy, or of real commitment to building democracy, they would be as clear as Republicans are about what their job is. Every Democratic executive -- from the president to governors to mayors and county executives -- would be using the powers of his or her office to help workers organize. They would be forced to explain why unions are vital -- to democracy, to a more equitable economy, to rising productivity.

Now, when the wage share of GDP is near record lows, when CEO pay has soared to obscene extremes, when productivity and profits are rising but wages are stagnant, it is time for Democrats to get a clue. The letter signed by nearly two dozen senators is an example. Progressives across the country might sensibly ask those who have failed to join it why they have gone AWOL. The fight for decent wages and a union among Senate cafeteria workers is important in itself. And it is symbolic about a far bigger fight that can no longer be shirked.