In Politics, There’s Expensive, and Then There’s Effective
Romney and Ryan make quite a pair—vulture capitalist and budgetary ax-man.
The Republicans are doubling down on the free market folly that put our economy in a death spiral four years ago. The square-jawed candidate at the top of the ticket personifies Wall Street excesses, having spent his career downsizing, offshoring, or just plain destroying good jobs.
Paul Ryan adds public sector slash-and-burn to the campaign. He wrote the plan to erase the last vestiges of the New Deal by handing Medicare over to the insurance industry and privatizing Social Security.
Labor leaders aren’t wrong when they talk about how bad these bad boys would be. The Republicans seem prepared to destroy unions entirely.
But that assessment glosses over how cozy many Democrats are with the 1%—this fall’s populist rhetoric notwithstanding. Few will name the bankers and billionaires who got us into this economic mess, much less clip their wings so they can’t do it again.
And in city halls and statehouses across the country, Democrats have jumped on the budget-cutting bandwagon, taking aim at public sector workers and their unions. Teachers and school support staff are a quarter of all union members—and are suffering sharp attacks. Democrats from Rahm Emanuel in Chicago to Deval Patrick in Massachusetts are betting their assaults on teachers and other government workers will bolster their tough-guy credentials and attract independent voters.
Even diehard labor leaders have abandoned the notion that electing our Democratic friends will turn the tide. Union leaders interviewed by Labor Notes universally say their GOTV efforts among members are stressing the Romney-Ryan negatives.
At the Democratic Party convention, United Auto Workers President Bob King told the Michigan delegation it’s important that “people have the right amount of fear.”
Labor leaders have given up hope of getting Obama to support workers’ issues.
No surprise, given the disappointments of the last four years: labor law reform dead and buried; trade deals that copycat NAFTA; health care reform that’s a gift to the insurance companies, leaves out millions, and eases no burden at the bargaining table; scapegoating of public sector workers, rather than raising taxes on those who’ve profited so handsomely from our upside-down economy.
The dispiriting array of options is painfully familiar to veteran labor activists. But better choices won’t present themselves without a shake-up of our current approach to electoral politics.
We need a clear-eyed understanding of how we got here, and an exit strategy—which has to go beyond the next election. As we grope for a way out of this deep hole, here is some food for thought.
Admit the Problem. Twelve-step programs start by admitting you have a problem—it’s a necessary condition for recovery.
Labor needs to recognize it’s in an abusive relationship with the Democratic Party. It’s at best contested terrain, at worst enemy territory, with the trend moving in the wrong direction. Ask teachers in Chicago if you have any doubts.
Just Say No. No matter how many times labor’s issues are ignored, we always re-enlist for the next campaign. AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka’s threats to pull labor backing from turncoat Democrats are so hollow that by now they don’t even register.
Why do we forget everything we’ve learned at the bargaining table when we do politics? A strike threat that’s not credible gives you no leverage. If we want Democrats to change their tune, we have to stop putting money in their cup.
That would require us to set goals beyond the next election cycle, and actually be willing to lose a few rounds in order to stop being taken for granted.
We should be sitting out races where the field is full of stinkers. In Oregon and Maryland, unions have pushed challengers against anti-worker Democrats in primaries. But we need to go beyond building a credible threat, and build a credible alternative.
Abandon the Financial Arms Race. When corporations are contributing as much in two months as unions can in two years, labor can’t spend its way to victory. We’re not even in the game.
Citizens United has cemented corporate power over the political arena for the foreseeable future. In 2009-10 labor was outspent by 10 to 1 inside the Democratic Party, and the gap will only get wider in 2012. Conservatives are doing their part, of course, disarming and defunding union political programs with Scott Walker-style assaults on collective bargaining; attacks on union money in politics (see page 6); and right-to-work initiatives on the ballot or in front of the legislature in 21 states.
What could we do with our political money that would make an impact? Even 10 percent of the $400 million unions will spend this election season could get us a long way toward electoral alternatives more promising in the long term.
Time to Experiment. One place to start is redirecting resources into issue campaigns, which have posted more gains for labor than our work with candidates and make our work on behalf of all workers visible.
But let’s not stop at living wage campaigns or demanding paid sick days for low-wage, non-union workers.
If we don’t like where health care reform is headed nationally, let’s create single-payer models at the state level, as campaigns in Vermont and Oregon are attempting.
We’re also not completely stuck when it comes to getting candidates elected. Locally, there are some bright spots. In Madison, Wisconsin, a citywide political coalition has spent nearly 20 years building a near-majority on the city council, winning a city minimum wage and bigger budgets for education and public health. In the medium-size cities of Lynn, Massachusetts, and Richmond, California, newer local coalitions are trying the same, with deep connections in their communities.
The Working Families Party, a third-party effort that uses cross-endorsements to pressure Democrats, would like to have the same outsized impact that the Tea Party has had on Republicans.
Or is it possible to build an alternative to the Democrats entirely? Vermont’s 30-year-old Progressive Party has elected seven members to the state legislature, and was crucial in pushing through the state’s 2011 single-payer law. Unions haven’t opened the coffers in support, although Mike O’Day, an activist in the Communications Workers, is running on the party’s line this fall.
Labor’s grassroots muscle creates the best odds at the local level, setting the stage for scaling up our efforts.
Actions Speak Louder than Words. Too many staffers and elected leaders are convinced that labor’s central problem is what we’re saying, or “messaging.” But what we’re doing counts a lot more. Labor doesn’t have a PR problem so much as an activity deficit.
From the 2008 occupation of Republic Windows and Doors to the 2011Wisconsin uprising, one thing is clear: If you want to change the conversation, the best way to do it is to through bold action.
Indeed, a year ago Occupy Wall Street accomplished what unions and their millions couldn’t—refocusing the national conversation on skyrocketing inequality and the criminal role banks played in driving the economy off a cliff. Unions would do well to pick up where Occupy left off. Nothing we attempt in politics will be useful for long unless we’re also taking on employers and bankers directly.
We’ve Got Your Back. Bold action can’t be solely on behalf of our own members, if we’re going to shake off the “special-interest” stereotype. Whether it’s defending homeowners from foreclosure, fighting wage-thieving employers, or pushing to expand health care to everyone, it has to be clear—through action—which side we’re on.
Alliances are necessary, of course, because labor isn’t strong enough to win alone. Even if we could, we shouldn’t. We need the millions of unorganized workers (and those who wish they were working) as much as they need us.
Tackle the Big Ideas. We have to have something to say to our neighbors—and not just a focus-grouped message designed to get a demographic niche to pull the lever a certain way.
That takes deep political education, not marketing. We have to tackle the big questions—and provide some answers—if we want to change common sense. Who’s going to pay for pensions and health care for future generations? Can the market solve our economic problems? What is the role of government in the 21st century?
We need these conversations in our union halls, along with history lessons connecting the dots. Whether it’s the minimum wage or the weekend, labor’s gains didn’t come from playing by the rules. Once we face what it will take to win, we’re equipped to move that conversation into our communities.