LAURA FLANDERS: When Californians go to the polls this November they are going to be asked to vote on an initiative known as Proposition 32 or the “Stop Special Interest Money Now” act. Sounds great right? Well critics say it’s not what it seems. Far from getting private money out of elections they say Prop 32 is nothing less than another full scale attack on organized labor.
Peter Drier is Director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College in Los Angeles, he’s also the author of a new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. The book is a powerful reminder of the contributions labor unions have made to our history. Peter Dreier: it’s great to have you.
PETER DREIER: Thank you it’s great to be here
LAURA FLANDERS: Now one thing Californians are hearing a lot about right now is this Proposition 32.
ANNOUNCER: The “Stop Special Interest Money Now” initiative will break the big money tie between special interests and politicians by allowing only individuals, not special interests, to contribute to campaigns.
LAURA FLANDERS: Now at first glance it looks kind of great. Really plugging in to the hunger people have to get special interest money out of politics. But it’s not quite all it seems. What is Prop 32?
PETER DREIER: Well if I watched the commercials for Prop 32 I’d probably vote in favor of it as well but in fact it’s a fraud, it’s deceptive. It’s really a corporate power grab being called campaign finance reform. Prop 32 is brought to you by the same billionaires that are behind Karl Rove, the Koch brothers and a lot of the same people that brought you anti-gay marriage laws, anti-immigration propositions. It’s an attempt to put labor unions in a straight jacket, to basically weaken the power of working people and their major political voice, the unions.
LAURA FLANDERS: So how do you get from money to labor, I mean on the face of it it says against special interest money and there are even democrats who are up there right now saying it’s an even handed initiative.
PETER DREIER: It says that neither labor unions nor corporations will be able to donate money to political candidates or referendum. But what’s not being told in their commercials and what’s hidden in the language of the law is that it exempts billionaires from giving money to super-pacs it exempts real estate developers, Wall Street hedge funds, insurance companies and independent issue groups who are funded by the Koch brothers and people like them. So while it puts labor unions in a vice and says you can’t support any of your members money to support liberal candidates that support working people’s issues, it allows huge exemptions, huge loopholes for the business and rich right-wing billionaires.
LAURA FLANDERS: Well so how does it do that, I mean it either bans political contributions or it doesn’t.
PETER DREIER: It says that only corporations are banned from giving money to politicians but corporations can give money to super-pacs which in turn can give money to politicians. It exempts, what are not really the same thing as a corporation, a real estate trust, which is how developers do business. Insurance companies aren’t the same a corporations and hedge funds aren’t the same of as corporations, and so, and it’s very self conscious. They did this very purposefully so what they basically say is that corporations and unions alike cannot use their member’s dues for political purposes. Well corporations don’t use member’s dues for political campaign purposes they use their profits. And they don’t ask permission of their stockholders when they give campaign contributions and when they fund super pacs and give Karl Rove and people like that money to fund right wing politicians. Unions of course, that’s what unions do. Unions are democratically elected organizations and so union members have the right to opt out, already, if they don’t want to use their money for political purposes. And so it’s a complete farce, right now the corporations outspend labor unions by 15 to 1 in our political world and this will just widen that gap and make the unions and the voice for working people almost invisible and make the corporations much more powerful.
LAURA FLANDERS: Talk a bit about that wording about “Special interests have done this, special interests have done that.” It has different meanings to different people, doesn’t it? How does it become so skewed?
PETER DREIER: Well most people, when they think of special interests they think of corporate lobbyists, they think of the Chamber of Commerce or they think of the National Rifle Association and so when the people that are promoting Prop 32 talk about special interests they are hoping the public thinks about that in terms of big corporations and wealthy billionaire political actors and so that’s the language they are using.
But so labor unions, Planned Parenthood, groups that support public education, those are the ones that are going to lose out. Those are I guess special interests took they are special interests for working families, for women, for immigrants, they are special interests for people that don’t otherwise have a voice in politics.
LAURA FLANDERS: What will it do to politics in California if this passes, and I should ask you where it stands right now if the famous polls?
PETER DREIER: Well the polls show that a majority of voters, but a slight majority, have seen through this and are opposed to it. But the big ad onslaught hasn’t happened yet because it’s on the November 6th ballot. Right now it looks like it will go down but it depends on who votes. It’s important for people to realize that if this passes the gap between the rich and the poor that we’ve been talking about ever since Occupy Wall Street, will get even worse because the billionaires and millionaires and the corporations that fund politics will have an even larger voice and the ordinary working people will have a much smaller voice because unions are the voice that helped get us the 8 hour day and the 40 hour week and the weekend and public school funding and all the things that Americans take for granted as part of the American way of life is brought in part to you by the labor movement. If the labor movement disappears as a voice in California and then that spreads around the country it will be devastating for the ordinary American.
LAURA FLANDERS: Now it goes a little bit towards the subject of your book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century it’s an incredible collection of change makers, not all of them saints but people who are no questions heroes and have made change. Just before we started you said you wrote the book in part because of how we got to where we are today has sort of disappeared from public consciousness. In particular the role of unions, how? How has it become so hard to tell the union story, or so rarely told?
PETER DREIER: Well it’s not told in high school, it’s not told in most television shows. You know one of my favorite shows in the last decade was The Wire on HBO and yet the only mention of labor unions in The Wire was a corrupt longshoreman’s union. So the stereotypes of labor unions have been getting worse and worse and it’s also a problem that unions have been under enormous assault in the last 3 decades ever since the PATCO strike when Ronald Reagan crushed the Air Traffic Controllers. So it’s very difficult to tell their story, my book is an attempt to remind people that we all stand on the shoulders of the people who for the last 100 years who have been fighting for a more humane equal America and the labor movement has been one of the prime movers for social security, for minimum wage, for the things we now take for granted.
LAURA FLANDERS: Tell us a story from the book. My pitch would be for one that reminds us you don’t have to be Superman or a saint to make change in America.
PETER DREIER: Well there are a lot of people in the book who use their talents as activists, as musicians, as artists, as writers and some as politicians to promote the forces of progressive change. One of my favorites is Walter Ruther, he was the President of the United Auto Workers. Back in the 1940s and ‘50s and ‘60s Ruther was a household name. Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney who was the CEO of an auto company once called Walter Ruther the most dangerous man in Detroit because he knew that he had the power of these members. It was a huge union with over a million members. In his early days of his youth he was a fiery radical and in his later days he was a courageous liberal. But throughout his life he fought for the improvement of ordinary working people. He really was more responsible, perhaps more than anyone in America, for the rise of the middle class because the auto workers were the first union that guaranteed health insurance for their members, they were abkle to send their kids to college and take an annual vacation of three to four weeks a year. Walter Ruther, his union set the standard for the middle class and made it possible for the majority of Americans to buy a house and send their kids to college. Walter Ruther died in a plane crash in the early 1970s and since then there have been a lot of really great labor union leaders but no one who’s been on the cover of Time magazine or who’s been on television all the time and I think we need to remind ourselves that Richard Trumka and other leaders of the labor movement today, people like María Elena Durazo of the LA County Federation of Labor speak not just for their members but they speak for the broader society, they speak for the working and middle classes of society. They speak for the special interest, it’s a movement for social justice and Walter Ruther was really one of the founders of that great movement.
LAURA FLANDERS: Great talking to you Peter, thanks so much and thank you for the book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century its out now from Nation Books.