Lessons from the cold war on labor

In the recent skirmish in the cold war against unionized public-sector workers, the results are mixed. Despite the positive spin applied to the two-out-of-five seat “victory” in the recall effort in Wisconsin, portrayed by the AFL-CIO and others as a huge win, it is unclear at this point how big it really was. Whether the effort to un-elect (in Republican-dominated, gerrymandered districts) some of the lawmakers who voted to strip union rights from state workers was worth the effort or, as some say, just a wasteful redirection of the broad support labor had in the moment that was better spent on a general strike, we need to figure out. The real victory may be down the road—if the coalition can continue beyond this effort. From this extra-election venture we see not only the limits of putting all our union eggs in the Democratic Party basket but also the inherent problems to electoral activism (as it hits the fail-safe, two-party-system lock on power). With some luck and a continuation of the gargantuan effort, a replication of the broad coalition that formed (outside of normal two-party limits and with goals that include but go beyond electoral) it may be our only hope for some lasting movement toward a better life for working people in America.

In Wisconsin, the Republican-leaning districts chosen for the recall effort were determined by how presidential candidate Senator Obama did in the 2008 national election. Special elections traditionally put most voters to sleep. This reduced turnout unfortunately tends to favor the more conservative vote. The challenge for the recall was matching the 2008 turnout to overcome the odds not only of a stacked deck of registered majority Republican voters but also the usual cynicism that keeps voters home: elections don’t really matter, so why should this one be any different? At 60 percent, turnout was actually better than a traditional special election and even better than most recall efforts, but was still lower in these districts than when the national presidential seat was the prize. The broad, statewide support unions had in the moment did not find expression in three of these five districts. We have to ask both what was missing here, and is an electoral effort what is needed?

But some key elements were missing. Part of the reason for only a partial victory was that the Democratic Party controlled the candidate picking and the message. Even though they had the most to gain by “flipping,” that is, replacing Republican office holders with those from their own party they distanced themselves from the one hot issue of the day: whether state employees had the right to be unionized, apparently in an attempt to counter the perception that unions control the party. And despite the president’s campaign promise to “put on his sneakers and walk the picket lines” for labor, surprisingly, the Obama administration also sat this one out. Oh, lest we forget, candidate Obama promised to sign the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) as well—if Congress sent it to his desk. Alas, that has yet to happen, although it did make it to G.W. Bush’s desk, not once, but twice, for his cynical, service-to-the-rich veto. That was no surprise. However, when Obama was sworn into office Congress had a Democratic majority in both houses. This historic renewal of the 1935 Wagner Act could have been history in his first month in office. Unfortunately, and here is the lesson, with Obama in and the possibility of the bill passing Congress a reality, a few key Democrats switched their votes from yea to nea, among them California’s Senator Feinstein. Following this vote, the Obama administration asked labor to put EFCA on hold until after the health care reform legislation became law. Today, health care “reform” (mostly a corporate handout with a few mild reforms thrown in for credibility sake) passed into law but the odds of passing EFCA are more remote than ever, as the window of opportunity seems to have closed (for another decade or so).

With all the effort unions put into electing Democrats across the country some might think labor would have more to show for it. Where are labor’s supposed champions? As President Obama was missing in Wisconsin, so is Gov. Brown missing the opportunity to fully defend California’s public sector. The best we can say is he isn’t outwardly attacking us. The reality is, despite Republican myth and Tea Party mouth-foaming, the Democratic Party is hardly the champion of labor or of working people in general. The party is firmly in the hands of corporate powers. These same powers lead (using divergent methods) the Republican Party and the so-called Tea Party Patriots by their invisible nose rings.

The cold war is getting hotter. As wealth disparity reaches new heights the powerful few are coming after the last holdout of opposition with any semblance of power—public employee unions. In the last 30 years especially, private-sector unionism (now at around six percent) is falling to the corporate-led backlash that has been hard at work since FDR’s New Deal. At 37 percent, the public sector is still unionized at post New-Deal-era levels. The larger agenda has been to attack and “shrink” the public sector, in order to “defund the left,” as if the public sector were “the left” but really to attack the base of the last vestiges of supports to the working class. With anti-tax rhetoric (the very underpinning of the public sector) now winning the day, it makes perfect sense to turn up the heat on public employee unions, the last defender, it seems, of the public sector. It also forces the question of continuing to fight for “progressive” crumbs tossed by the Democratic Party to maintain its “base” (public unions, public sector) or create something new and more powerful.

Beware the coming ballot. And beware the approach we take in our defense. We must clarify our goals and the strategy and the tactics needed to reach them. Elections are only one tactic in our movement to make life better for working people, and may not be the best one to put most of our energy into. Did the decision to switch from sit-downs, marches, and occupation take away from the coalition building and education “happening” that Wisconsin’s state house had become? Did the flipping of two seats in Wisconsin, and the effort to elect Brown, move us forward or take us back? What will a two-thirds Democratic majority in California yield without a movement with a progressive agenda pushing them away from the corporate?

If the coalition that flipped two Republican seats in Wisconsin can continue on and grow, and we can replicate this effort across the country and in California; if we can bring together public education at all levels from pre-school, to K–12, to the Community Colleges, CSU and UC—with all their students and parents and alumni, and combine that with health care and other social services, and then include the unemployed and the underemployed and connect with other movements like Occupy Wall Street and Refund California—if a broad coalition, the politics of millions, can create a dialogue centered on turning around the existing economy that’s structured to the needs of bankers (the “financelization” of the economy that happened in the last 30 years) into one that works for working people and re-create public spaces and raise voices that carry the message to protect and grow (using a real democratic model) the public sector—when that day comes, working people will have a fighting chance.

As “Solidarity Divided” author Bill Fletcher Jr. said to the Progressive Caucus at the recent California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento, the Democrats have to decide which it is: are they about merely gaining and exercising political power for its own sake or are they really committed to making things better for working families in America? The party’s mostly lip service “dedication” to working people is not reversing the latest trends. Labor, it seems, has to figure out the very same thing—are we about power, growth at any cost with top-down schemes that organize workers who don’t know the difference between filing a union grievance and complaining to a human resources manager, or can we be about building a union movement that embraces and empowers all workers, no matter if they are unionized or how they feel about labor? We need to decide. And soon.


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