John Kerry: False Friend of Labor

by Joe Auciello

As the tight presidential race heats up, Senator John Kerry finds it increasingly necessary to present himself as a friend of labor and unions. For the self-styled “entrepreneurial Democrat,” supporter of NAFTA and the Free Trade Agreement, the new act is not convincing. Kerry’s pro-labor posture is a carefully calculated political ploy. It is designed to break the virtual tie between President Bush and Kerry in the national polls and push Kerry to the fore among swing voters in the undecided or “battleground” states, on which the presidential election hinges.

Certainly there is good political sense in this strategy. More than three million jobs have been lost in the current recession. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy never produced the social benefits Republicans promised but instead have created a $521 billion dollar, long-term deficit. According to a June 28 New York Times/CBS News poll, the president’s overall approval rating is only 42%. Bush’s own plan calls for more tax cuts, more rhetoric of “compassionate conservatism,” and more slashing of public services.

No surprise, then, that Kerry continues to attack Bush on the problems of jobs and the economy. But the Democratic candidate never suggests anything more than the predictable boilerplate of campaign promises, promises which often fall short of those offered by his former rivals for the Democratic nomination.

At the national Service Employees International Union convention, Kerry called for lower health-care premiums and vowed, if elected, to fight for a patients’ bill of rights. He did not explain why he has done little to advance these causes in the Senate.

Kerry indicated these proposals would directly benefit millions of working women, but he did not call for paid family leave nor did he call for expanded tax credits for working families, as former candidate Gen. Wesley Clark had done.

In June the presumptive Democratic Party nominee canceled a speech at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Boston, refusing to cross picket lines set up by Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and the city’s firefighters’ union. Kerry got more than he gave. In return for Kerry’s passive support, the unions promised not to embarrass Kerry by picketing the Democratic National Convention in July, an action they had been threatening for months.

Kerry has never actually supported the demands of the police and firefighters’ unions. The International Association of Fire Fighters endorsed Kerry early in the race, and they and police unions have been strong supporters of Kerry throughout the country. These contract disputes in Kerry’s home state have been boiling all spring, but the senator has so far avoided mentioning them.

Kerry’s reluctant support for labor is evident in his proposal for a new minimum wage. While any wage increase for the working poor is welcome, Kerry’s proposal has more to do with the political need of an ambitious politician than the practical need of a low-paid worker.

The Fair Minimum Wage Act, co-sponsored by Massachusetts Senators Kennedy and Kerry, would, in a series of increments, raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7 by 2007. Republicans are developing their own bill to increase the minimum wage by a $1.10 to $6.25 an hour.

Therefore, radical critics who say there is not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties are not quite right. The difference, at least on paper, is $0.75 over three years. Of course, there is also the possibility that the two parties might reach a compromise before the Congressional recess in August. In that case, the difference between the two parties could be considerably less. 

The need for a wage hike is obvious to anyone who works for the minimum wage and who, on average, makes only $10, 172 per year. The federal pay rate has not increased since 1997. According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., inflation has eroded 90% of the wage’s value since the previous increase.

In fact, the federal minimum wage is so inadequate that a dozen states have already set minimum wages higher than the federal minimum, and several of these (Alaska, Connecticut, Washington, for instance) are currently higher than what the Democrats are offering three years from now.        

The crucial fact is that the federal minimum wage, even at the rate proposed by Kennedy and Kerry, is too low to support working families. Millions will still be forced to choose between the landlord’s rent or the doctor’s bill, between buying food or clothes or medicine, or other necessities of life. Despite Kerry’s rhetoric — “With this increase, we will lift up millions of workers and build a stronger America as a result” — the truth is that millions will still be trapped in dead-end jobs. The Democrats’ goal is not to determine a wage that will lift working families out of poverty; their goal is merely to gather some votes. The real point of the minimum wage law is to benefit politicians, not people. 

Senator Kerry, who refers to himself as a “pragmatic centrist,” wants to appeal to liberals and appease conservatives. His policies would offer only some meager benefit to low-paid workers, but not enough to make a real difference. Kerry’s proposals for labor in general, and his minimum-wage proposal in particular, are ultimately false promises where the rhetoric of hope masks the reality of disillusion and disappointment.           

What’s needed instead is a real alternative, such as a labor party that can field candidates to fight for workers’ rights — the rights of the majority — like the right to a job, universal health insurance, affordable housing, child care, and the right to an adequate income and pension.