DENVER - Former Sen. John Edwards was supposed to speak in Denver at the Democratic National Convention. His wife, Elizabeth Edwards, was to speak also. Poverty was their focus. But they are not here because John Edwards had an affair. Will the Democrats now forget about poverty?
Chris Chafe is a former senior adviser to the Edwards campaign. He is now the executive director of the Change to Win coalition, the group of unions well known for their early endorsement of Obama. They split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. I asked Chafe about the absence of Edwards and his message at the convention:
"We miss him being here. He is an important voice in our party. ... It is certainly a loss. ... We have to look within ourselves in a moment of crisis when we have somebody of symbolic and strong value and leadership who takes a fall ... we have to continue moving forward with all of the values, strengths, priorities and leadership that he brought to the race, we have to carry that forward ... far beyond this election season."
Change to Win supports the unionization of workers at Wal-Mart. Last month, The Wall Street Journal revealed that Wal-Mart has been warning managers that a Barack Obama victory would lead to unionization. In recent weeks, thousands of Wal-Mart store managers and department heads have been summoned to mandatory meetings discussing the downside of unionization and told that a vote for Obama is tantamount to inviting unions in. Chafe said: "The company had been holding what we would consider captive-audience meetings where they are on company time, they are paid but they are required to go to meetings. ... This is going beyond the normal routine of intimidation. Now they are trying to deny workers rights at the ballot box, and that is something we felt we could not allow to take place and had to let the world know this is happening in the country's largest employer. ... You are not allowed to tell your employees how they are supposed to vote. It is the most sacred right in our democracy." Change to Win and others have filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, challenging Wal-Mart's actions.
During the primaries in the blue-collar battleground states, Obama effectively pointed out that Hillary Clinton served on the Wal-Mart board for six years, implying an anti-worker, anti-union association. Shortly after she dropped out of the race, however, the Obama campaign appointed Jason Furman as a senior economics adviser. Furman has rankled labor activists, writing that the benefits of Wal-Mart's low prices outweigh its low wages. On that appointment, Chafe said, "We've met privately with [Obama] about it, and we've met privately with Jason. The senator brought Jason on to manage the day-to-day war-room operations of their message to illustrate contrast with [John] McCain. ... We made it clear, as did the senator, that there were certainly differences of viewpoint between he and Jason on a series of issues. We believe that Barack Obama has stood firm and clear on our agenda and the [Wal-Mart] workers' agenda."
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On low prices trumping low wages, Chafe chafed: "Absolute hogwash ... Wal-Mart gets a pass because they pass along savings, they are passing along poverty. Poverty to workers across the world who are producing their goods. Poverty to the people that are working in their stores representing them who are trying to make a living, many of whom probably have multiple jobs to afford to raise their families. ... You name it, they find every way to cut corners and cut their workers out of their success."
The U.S. Census Bureau released a poverty report on Aug. 26. More than 37 million people are in poverty in the U.S. With Edwards iced out of the discussion, and free-trade economists advising the Obama campaign, the question remains: What of poverty?
Obama's nomination acceptance speech comes on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" address. King related poverty and justice: "We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check-a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. ... Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."
Denis Moynihan contributed to this column.