Today was Anna Burger's day in the spotlight. Her stump speech was about the 2008 elections, and why politics was so important to SEIU's future. Burger, who heads up Change to Win, is apparently the czar of SEIU's political operations, and it was nice to hear her say, "There is no question that organizing and politics go hand and hand," acknowledging the link between SEIU's growth and their work in the political arena.
But inside SEIU's world, what is cause and what is effect? Right before she uttered those words Burger said, "Make no mistake--our political strength is a direct result of the one million new members who have joined our union since 1996."
Seems to me the reverse is more true, that SEIU's rapid growth is the result of their political operations (savvy, more than strong, I would argue).
If you look at their own figures, 75 percent of their growth in the last decade was in public services and long-term care, almost all of which is public sector or publicly funded (i.e. homecare and childcare) work. The numbers they use internally are:
- 314,395 in public services (1997-2005)
- 86,530 in property services (1996-2005)
- 133,719 in health systems (1996-2005)
- 357,103 in long term care (1997-2005)
Either way, judging by the rest of Burger's talk, the strategy is to create a virtuous circle: Use politics to organize. Use this growth (and the dues and political-action contributions that come with it) to fund more politics. Push the people we elect to create more organizing opportunities.
It's not a stupid strategy for SEIU; their record over the last ten years shows that it works.
CAN SEIU SCALE POLITICS UP TO THE NATIONAL LEVEL?
But can this model scale up from the state level to the national arena?
This is a reasonable question, since it's not like SEIU's organizing success has been uniform across the country. They readily admit their growth (politically generated or not) has been concentrated in a handful of states.
Indeed, their 2007 membership report shows heavy bunching in their membership:
- California - 689,036
- New York - 390,545
- Illinois - 147,790
- Washington - 85,602
- Michigan - 72,506
- Massachusetts - 71,820
So that means close to 70 percent of all SEIU members are in California, New York, and Illinois (not exactly swing states last time I checked). Adding Washington, Massachusetts, and Michigan and you get to 81 percent of all SEIU members (again, not really the federal politicians that need the biggest push on health care, the war, or the Employee Free Choice Act). What kind of suction does that give SEIU in Congress, given how concentrated their membership is?
SEIU also spends lots of money on politics, including elections outside these six states. It's been widely reported, for example, that SEIU has pledged to spend $80 million on the 2008 election (like the campaign for Representative Donna Edwards in Maryland, which I'll talk about below). But we also know that labor will never win if we're just playing a money game. The Center for Responsive Politics has great statistics on this.
One thing that they show consistently is that labor is outspent more than 10 to 1 by business. And this year that gap promises to be even wider, since more money will flow into this election than ever in our history. In fact, this year's candidates have already spent more in the 2008 primaries than was spent in the entire 2004 election! It's interesting to note, by the way, that money spent in 2004 ($880.5 million) was more than double what was spent in 1996 ($425.7 million).
CAN SEIU REALLY MUSCLE ITS WAY INTO THE PRIVATE SECTOR?
But even if SEIU can move from a state-by-state strategy to a national one, the fundamental challenge they face is a different one. On the organizing front, their state strategies have centered around securing collective bargaining rights for public sector workers (like the campaign in Colorado you can read about in a comment on a previous post) and the fight to create unions for those paid by public money (like homecare and childcare workers). Their national strategy is about passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which is a whole different ballgame since the target is now private sector employers who account for 84 percent of all employment in the country.
While SEIU may be able to wear down state legislatures when it comes to how they spend public money, it's a much different theater of operations when it comes to EFCA. Now we are taking on the titans of industry, who are salivating over a union-free future. Does SEIU (or the labor movement as a whole) have the juice to win EFCA?
CAN WE TRUST SEIU'S POLITICAL JUDGEMENT?
And what compromises are SEIU's leaders willing to make if we're not strong enough to win EFCA or any other national policy goal outright? There are plenty of reasons to worry about their political judgment.
For example, in their efforts to penetrate the nursing home industry in California the union initially backed an unsavory tort reform ballot measure that patient advocates hated. (And for those who think I'm naive or just in love with Sal Rosselli and the UHW, believe it or not I know he is no angel. He was an initial backer of the tort reform measure, for example, sowing longstanding mistrust between health care and patients-rights groups and the UHW).
After their deal with the nursing home operators was thrown into the light of day, the union had to disavow the deal, but their willingness to trade away protections of the frail and the elderly doesn't help me sleep easy at night.
A similarly cynical approach to political action was on display in Cleveland in 2003 when Dave Regan and Local 1199 West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky led a dirty campaign against Issue 15, an emergency tax levy to plug the county's recession-induced budget gap. The measure was designed to raise money for services such as foster care and meals for senior citizens. It was also supported by virtually the entire labor community in Cleveland. But Regan and 1199 WOK vowed to defeat Issue 15 because Cuyahoga County wouldn't push its human services agencies to give the union a neutrality agreement.
They waged a cynical "can't trust the government" campaign, complete with slick mailers about how much money the agencies waste. In the final days the local labor council decided to reverse its earlier decision to stay neutral (which Regan and the SEIU aggressively pushed for) and come out in support of the levy.
Thankfully the public ignored SEIU's cynical and self-serving campaign, overwhelmingly voting in the levy. If Regan and the SEIU had prevailed would it really have been Justice for All for the public, or for those public sector workers who would have lost their jobs?
If SEIU is leading the way in the 2008 elections, then where are we really headed? And can we trust SEIU to get us there?
IS OBAMA THE ANSWER?
If you listen to Anna Burger then the answer is clear. To paraphrase the words of SEIU's candidate, "Yes we can!"
Most of the rest of her speech was a well-worn wind up for why electing Barack Obama is the most important thing we may ever do as individuals, or SEIU may ever do as a union.
The language was familiar. Burger reminded the crowd, "What we do in the next year could set the stage for the next 50 years."
After singing Obama's praises she proclaimed, "November 4 will be a great day--a day we elect Barack Obama, a pro-worker majority in Congress, win 60 votes in the Senate, and pro-worker governors across the country. It will be a day we reclaim our country and start fresh."
After ticking off all the things that could be done by the federal government under a more progressive Congress, Burger closed by saying, "Imagine a world where five years after employee free choice is signed into law, SEIU is organizing a million or more workers a year and the labor movement has added 20 million members to its ranks. Through the employee free choice we've built a principled, permanent workers movement that will redefine politics for the next century."
Leaving Obama (or whether he and the Democratic congressional hopefuls can win) out of the equation, it's not clear that Burger painted an honest picture of exactly what sorts folks will move into the Capitol next year, or just how likely they are to be the "pro-worker" majority we all wish for. There are more millionaires than union members, after all!
In the February issue of Labor Notes our editor Chris Kutalik took up some of the key questions that face labor when it comes to electoral politics. I think his broad conclusions are right, in particular the fact that "meaningful political change starts with determined pressure from below".
Like Anna Burger's speech, Chris' article also ended ticking off the laundry list of political reforms we need to improve the lives of the U.S. working class. But Chris drew a more ambiguous conclusion:
We need all these reforms, but we won’t get them without a political mobilization that goes beyond this election—and beyond probable Democratic victories in Congress and the White House. Neither Clinton nor Obama nor John Edwards backs a single-payer health plan, for example. And by themselves the labor law reforms we seek won’t change the balance of power between working people and employers. The right to card check won’t automatically translate into an explosion of new, vibrant unions, nor will banning permanent replacements ensure the ability to win more strikes.
Unions have shown themselves able to mobilize tens of thousands of members for short-term political goals. That same effort needs to be turned to mobilizing members at the union hall, at the many thousands of unorganized workplaces, and, most neglected of all, on the job.
HOLDING THEIR FEET TO THE FIRE
Although I don't share Burger's rosy assessment of what could be done in the first term, let alone the first 100 days, of an Obama presidency, I was heartened to see her spend so much time talking about accountability.
Before I started working at Labor Notes I spent nearly a decade working with living wage campaigns around the country. If there is one thing that movement demonstrated it's the fact that winning the law is easy compared to how hard it is to get it enforced. And the same goes for electing politicians. Look at where we are with a democratic Congress--no closer to bringing troops home from Iraq or to meaningful reform of our health care system or immigration laws. And we still don't have EFCA either. (Ever wonder if EFCA would have passed the House if there hadn't been a guarantee of a presidential veto and a narrow majority in the Senate vulnerable to a filibuster?)
SEIU is already thinking past election day, pledging to put $10 million and half of all the union's staff time and resources into a campaign to hold elected officials accountable to the union's agenda. Below is a clip of Burger talking about the accountability plan.
GETTING BETTER CANDIDATES
Like a lot of Democratic Party watchers, SEIU has rightfully crowed about their role in getting Donna Edwards elected as the Democratic candidate for Maryland's 4th District. Success has many parents as they say, because I've heard similar stories from other folks in the labor movement. In any event, there is no question that Edwards is more in line with SEIU's politics and will be a hell of a lot better than Al Wynn, the guy she beat in the primary and who resigned almost immediately after. I guess Wynn, who Bruce Dixon from Black Agenda Report called a "groveling tool of corporate power," couldn't wait a few more months to get out into the private sector and start cashing in on all those favors he's been doing for big business.
Donna gave a great speech at the SEIU convention about how it's "game over" for Wal-Mart, predatory lenders, and every other powerful corporation with their sights set on working people. You can see part of Edwards' talk below:
Unfortunately, all I could think about was who else in Congress shared her values or was going to work for her agenda.
Congress, including those inside the Democratic Party, have been moving to the right for over three decades. And Edwards seems like one of the rare examples of movement in the other direction. Does the labor movement really have the political chops to swim against the rightward tide and send more Donna Edwards to Capitol Hill? With "Clinton Democrats" now running the party (think Rahm Emmanuel, the supposed architect of the congressional turn-around in 2006) is this something the insiders will permit?