What’s Wrong with our Political Action?

July 2004

In between exhortations to “Dump Bush!” it is not uncommon these days to hear trade unionists ask in exasperation, “What’s wrong with our political action?” There is no question that the political action policies, programs, and entanglements of our labor movement have contributed to the decline in labor’s clout on the political front over the past several decades.

Even when recognizing improvements brought by the leadership change at the AFL-CIO in 1995, and within a number of national unions, labor’s influence at the ballot box continues to decline. Despite some occasional victories, the political scene is increasingly hostile and destructive to the interests of working people.

Diagnosing labor’s political action deficiencies and sporadic successes would take an entire weekend. Perhaps the activist section of the labor movement would consider convening such a session after the November elections, since either a Bush or Kerry victory still leaves working people facing a myriad of challenges.


It’s pretty hard to discuss just how we came to be in the mess that we are in—let alone plot a course out of the swamp—when the trade union consensus is to yet again stimulate the members to vote for as many Democrats as possible on Election Day. That’s one strategy for the elections, but not an analysis of how we might do better down the road.

That said, I’ll offer some thoughts based on the long experience of my union, the UE, with what we refer to as “independent rank-and-file political action.” Our political action efforts are far from perfect, but they have served to strengthen and fortify our membership as we face difficult times.

Our version of political action is based on these principles:

Membership education is the primary activity of our political action program. A comprehensive and ongoing political education program aims to explain the basic facts about our “them and us” world both in the workplace and on the political front. A rank-and-file member who comes to understand that our interests as workers are not the same as the bosses’ is better able to sort out the issues and candidates.

Political action and education are a year-round part of the union’s activism, not merely an election-time chore. Participation in coalitions such as Jobs with Justice, involvement in the rekindled movement for health care reform, or work to defend overtime pay all keep political action on a high-profile footing. Lessons learned during these battles contribute to growth in both the quality and quantity of a member’s political understanding and motivation.

Democratic participation in the political action policy of our union is the source of its strength. Frequent national conventions, district meetings, local meetings, and special conferences all contribute to a lively discussion and decision-making process. This consistent democratic practice also ensures that controversial yet critical issues such as the invasion of Iraq or the death penalty are regularly debated.

Political action decisions are based on the issues, not on the personality or political affiliation of those running for office. Lawmakers and candidates are supported based on their performance in office or their demonstrated commitment to working people. Endorsements are issued sparingly, and financial resources are kept in-house to further member education and mobilization efforts. We set our goals based on what we need and deserve as working people, not merely on what some politician tells us is “realistic.”



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Perhaps most importantly, we recognize that organizing the unorganized is the most urgent political action task facing the labor movement today. Any union today promoting its political action program without an even greater emphasis on organizing is doomed. Much of our crisis is tied to the inadequate size of our movement, in addition to its timid approach. We also refrain from promoting political action as a substitute for solid union organization in the workplace. On a day-to-day basis a well-trained and aggressive shop steward is more valuable to the average worker than a politician.

None of these principles are unique to UE, nor are they a blueprint or a one-size-fits-all cure for what ails the political action of the labor movement. But it behooves all of us to recognize that we face a profound crisis on the political action front, one that cannot be solved by more paid staff, over-priced consultants, or techno-gimmicks alone.