In Politics, There’s Expensive, and Then There’s Effective

Obama = disappointment. But better choices won't happen without a thorough shake-up of labor's approach to electoral politics. An AFL-CIO rally in Philadelphia August 11 tried to energize the ranks for the election. Photo: Alex Hogan, AFL-CIO.

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.



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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.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #403, October 2012. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Mark Brenner is the former director of Labor Notes and is currently an instructor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education & Research Center.


Will (not verified) | 10/14/12

I, like the author of this piece, have been reading about how unions are no longer to allow the Democrats take them for granted as well as the necessity for a third party for decades now. Nothing changes. The structure of our electoral system works against any third party effort that lacks sufficient size and/or regional concentration (such as in Vermont) to make much headway. Have there ever been discussions between the Working Families Party, the Labor Party, the Socialist Equality Party, the Green Party, the Justice Party, the Socialist Workers Party, and the International Socialist Organization (I guess readers can add some more) about forming a unified electoral front? The leaders of these various parties/tendencies need to get into a room, form a real working coalition and develop a collective strategy to actually present a relevant alternative. Barring that, the local initiatives/struggles that Brenner rightfully calls for might be the only way alternative worlds can be constructed.

In Solidarity, Will

Billb96 (not verified) | 10/12/12

I've read a lot of articles and opinion pieces recently about how the Democratic Party has betrayed the labor movement and how labor leaders are committing suicide by throwing money at the Dems (Is it really 400 million?)

They all follow a similar patten: Let's form a big passionate movement around issues, then demand that the Dems make concessions. And ever though we've had very little luck with that approach, they seem to stop short of even considering the possibility of building an alternative political party.

The Democratic Party is a ruling class party controlled mostly by financial elites in finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE). Add some in technology too. They will never let labor have any real say, they will not enact democratic economic reforms, they will not undo free trade in favor of fair trade, nor dismantle the national survellience state or the empire. Ever.

Yes, labor and its allies could actually build a movement(s) that would frighten the Democrats enough to make concessions. But we know from experience, that after the concessions do their job of deflating the movement, the Dems would get back to their regular anti-labor behavior. We've tried that course many times, and it doesn't produce long term benefits for labor, just the opposite. It demobilizes the movements leaving labor and it's allies more dependent then ever. (The Dems are like the abusive husband who after the wife walks out says "I'm sorry, I really love you honey. I bought you this new fur coat. Please come back." Labor, don't go back!

If we can build enough power to sway corporate Democrats, why not use that power to build an independent progressive/left party that is not beholden to (FIRE). Why not build a party, not necessarily a labor party, (that might develop later) but one that is highly sympathetic to labor and that depends on its resources? One where labor, women, minorities, progressives activists, environmentalists, peace advocates etc. could work out a common platform without having to disguise our intents or plead with party big wigs. One that puts real friends of labor into office and punishes our enemies.

Impossible you say? I say there's a lot you can do with $400 million, but you gotta think outside the Democratic Party box.

MooseOnTheLoose (not verified) | 10/12/12

I think this article makes some valid points, and I am also heartened to hear about UNITE HERE's progress.

Regarding the "Evil of Two Lessers" presidential dilemma posed at the beginning of this article... why not vote Green this election? Jill Stein is running on a pro-worker platform-- check it out:

Not many have heard of her because the media's blacked her out and she's running on a shoestring budget (all small individual donations), but considering what she's up against, she's been stretching the money pretty far-- she's even got a great commercial out:

If she can get 5% of the popular vote this time, that will unlock $20 million in federal campaign funds for 2016-- meaning that a true candidate of the 99% could actually make a winning bid for the White House in 2016. I agree that it's time to stop making political choices out of fear-- we need to take control of our money and our votes, and put them where our hearts truly are. I think voting for Stein is something we could all do right now to turn this ship around, and build a real political alternative for 2016.

kastigar | 10/12/12

From the Green Party Platform:

The right to organize has been eroded and diluted over the years by incremental infringements and restrictions, especially by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 passed over President Truman's veto. We stand for repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act. The right to organize has also been diminished by an aggressive anti-union offensive by employers who have undermined the law, and in many cases, brazenly violated it. To restore these legal rights, we call for the enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act.

No other political party takes such a strong stand in favor of two issues fundamental to labor's problems.

Send a message, even if means someone else takes a loss. VOTE GREEN

brashley46 | 10/12/12

is in Socialist Organizer over the last couple months. (I tried to include the website but it triggered the spam filter. Pfui.)

Anyhow: Trying to form a partnership with the Democrats and trying to force them Left by cross-endorsements have been tried, over and over, and always fail in the medium-to-long term. Time to go all out whole hog and build an independent party of labor. We have one up here in Canada- the New Democratic Party - and although the relationship has been spotty we have had some success with it, for example getting universal single-payer health insurance on the national agenda and implemented.

Political independence for labor is a long-term plan that needs to be started twenty years ago. If you know what I mean, and I think you do.

LA organizer (not verified) | 10/09/12

I would suggest that an article about Labor Politics should touch on what UNITE HERE has been doing. We have recently elected pro-worker city councilpeople in cities like San Antonio and Phoenix, we're on the offensive with Living Wage initiatives in Long Beach, we're on the verge of transforming politics in Orange County by forcing Anaheim to switch from citywide to district elections... plus a lot more.

dougreith | 04/09/12

Comment fun