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Can Union Solidarity Trump Tea Party Rage?

Charles Townley
Date Published: 
December 1, 2010

Despite the somewhat rocky relationship between the labor movement and the Obama Administration, Democratic hopes for holding on to Congress were largely dependent on the political efforts of organized labor—still the only grassroots organization that has a track record of turning out reliably Democratic voters in key battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. According to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 55 percent of union members prefer to see the Democrats in control of Congress, compared to the general population, which is split down the middle.

While the Great Recession has further decimated labor’s shrinking ranks, which currently stands at 13 percent of the work force, union voters were a key voting bloc in some of the most highly contested races this year. The AFL-CIO—along with the Change to Win unions—launched an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign. In September alone, the labor federation mailed out 2.5 million pieces of campaign literature, targeting approximately 50 congressional and gubernatorial races.

Exit polling year after year shows that a union card is one of the strongest predictors of voting behavior, trumping race, educational background, and religiosity—identities that the GOP have masterfully manipulated since Richard Nixon first reached out to the silent majority in 1970. Labor had the job of not only getting its members to the polls but of, as liberal columnist Harold Meyerson writes, “…keeping the white working class from flooding into the Republican column.”

The question many embattled Democrats and labor leaders asked going into this election was: how would the rank-and-file respond?

Obama’s working-class Blues

Despite the strong anti-incumbent mood, union members largely stuck by the Democrats. Union members backed union-endorsed candidates at a national rate of 64 percent in the House and 62 percent in the Senate. While in most states this was not enough to stop the GOP tidal wave, labor provided the margin of victory in some key races, including Nevada, West Virginia and Washington state.

The AFL-CIO found that nearly 70 percent of union members went for Sen. Harry Reid, helping to beat back Tea Party endorsed candidate Sharron Angle and hold the Senate for the Democrats.

But labor’s midterm efforts can’t hide that the fact that the last two years have largely been a disappointment for many union members. Anxiety over continuing high unemployment, soaring health care costs, and the sense of betrayal by economic and political elites that is credited for motivating the Tea Party phenomena is being felt in labor’s ranks as well.

While the Tea Party’s commitment to privatizing Social Security or abolishing unemployment insurance is unlikely to win over many union voters, economic anxiety complicated the job of getting union members out to vote, endangering Democratic chances. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows that union voters were less enthusiastic about voting this year than the rest of the population.

As one AFL-CIO leader in New Hampshire—who asked not to be identified—said, “We asked our people to bust their behinds for Obama and the Democrats in 2008, telling them that things would change. Now they’re sitting on the bench, asking me, ‘where is the change?’”

Not that the Obama administration hasn’t managed to rack up an impressive pro-worker record—from stemming the worst effects of the Great Recession through stimulus spending, to appointing union-backed Rep. Hilda Solis to revamp the moribund Labor Department, and filling long-vacated seats on the National Labor Relations Board with pro-union advocates like former SEIU counsel Craig Becker.

But in Rust Belt towns across the Midwest, which continue to see unionized plants flee for lower wage environs in China, or the exurbs of the Southwest where tens of thousands of homeowners are stuck with mortgages that are deep underwater, these achievements go unnoticed.

In many battleground states, like Nevada and Michigan, unemployment hovers in the double digits. Unemployment among the building trades is more than 20 percent in some areas. 

An unfulfilled agenda

The economic climate may be the main reason for the rank-and-file’s lack of enthusiasm, but the reality is that some of the Democrats’ labor pains are self-inflicted. One breach was opened last March, when Obama angered many teacher unionists by coming out in support of the mass firing of teachers in one Rhode Island school district.

And despite some early hopes, labor’s number one legislative priority—the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)—still remains on the shelf. Despite Obama’s promises on the campaign trail that he would sign EFCA—which was the target of a multimillion dollar anti-union ad campaign launched by corporate lobbying groups—into law, the bill was never his legislative priority. As Newsweek reporter Jonathan Alter writes in The Promise, his account of Obama’s first year in the office, “Divisive issues…like comprehensive immigration reform, [and] EFCA…would all be set aside temporarily while Democrats focused on Obama’s first-tier agenda.”

With the GOPs gains in the Congress, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where EFCA becomes law anytime soon.

Health care

But Obama’s biggest blow to labor came with his decision to tax union members’ health care benefits. Last winter, as the health care reform bill was nearing its final push through Congress, Democrats agreed to a benefits tax—an idea that was widely attacked by labor leaders and then-candidate Obama when first proposed by Sen. John McCain in 2008.

The tax was widely seen by union members as an attack on their hard won gains in the midst of a historic economic downturn, as many unions had forsworn wage increases in place of beefed-up benefits over the last decade.

The decision, coming only weeks before the special election in Massachusetts to fill Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat, substantially dampened voter enthusiasm for Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, who ended up losing the union vote to the GOP’s Scott Brown by three percent.

Jeff Crosby, president of the IUE-CWA Local 201 in Lynn, MA, recounted on the AFL-CIO blog the rank-and-file’s reaction to the news a week before the election:

“Jeff, you guys at the Union Hall aren’t listening to us!...We’re fighting the benefit tax, and now you’re telling us to vote for someone who will tax our benefits! The guys here are voting for Scotty Brown.”

After November

The great hope that union activists felt in the wake of the 2006 and 2008 elections, which raised expectations of a New Deal-style legislative breakthrough by labor has been tempered by the reality of congressional gridlock, continuing corporate dominance on Capitol Hill, and record unemployment.

While labor’s efforts may have helped stem the worst of the GOP’s tide, the difficulties Democrats had moving legislation before the election  means that the Republican gains will place most of labor’s legislative agenda on hold.

Labor can, and has, won important organizing victories in hostile political and economic climates, but the experience of the last 30 years shows that the failure of corporate America to heed even the most minimum restrictions on union busting places a limit on how much organized labor can expect to grow without serious labor law reform.

With the unlikelihood of substantial labor law reform or big 1930s-style organizing drives in the immediate future, labor’s best chance of survival lays in continuing to cultivate relationships with progressive organizations and activists and building local grassroots coalitions around bread-and-butter issues like job creation, trade reform, minimum wage, and debt relief.

Labor’s efforts on behalf of Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s primary challenge against Wal-Mart-funded Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln—who burned labor on EFCA and on a host of other progressive issues—show the potential of what labor can do even in a state with low union density.

While falling short of knocking out Lincoln, the Arkansas labor movement, in coalition with progressive bloggers and environmental activists, built a substantial grassroots operation that shook up the political establishment—a movement that could be mobilized around scores of progressive issues.

LA Federation of Labor

One model of how the labor movement can go beyond its existing membership to empower newly emerging communities, while opening up new organizing opportunities, comes from Los Angeles. There, in the mid-1990s, the Los Angeles Federation of Labor (LA Fed) transformed itself from a largely insider lobbying organization into a genuine grassroots political movement by turning to the thriving immigrant rights movement, which blew up after then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed Proposition 187, which denied public services to the children of undocumented immigrants.

By championing immigrant rights and bringing them into the political process, the LA Fed developed a sophisticated precinct-by-precinct grassroots movement that has given both Latino and progressive politics in southern California a distinctly pro-labor bent, creating an environment more receptive to organizing.

Replicating the LA Fed’s model on a national scale is a much trickier proposition, but there are some good starts.

The AFL-CIO’s community affiliate Working America has established a good track record of reaching out to nonunion workers since it was launched in 2004, while individual unions, like the International Association of Machinists through their online UCubed effort, are finding creative new ways to organize the unemployed.

The October 2 “One Nation, Working Together” rally, sponsored by more than 100 progressive organizations, could be the first step in focusing the national narrative away from the Tea Party and on the needs of the struggling middle class.

Despite organized labor’s decline, unions, as author Dan Clawson points out it in his book, The Next Upsurge: Labor and the New Social Movements, still remain the most powerful and diverse progressive force in the country, counting more women members than NOW and more African American members than the NAACP.

Labor can provide the foundation for a new grassroots progressive movement, one that is interracial, inclusive and economically populist—a bottom-up coalition of union members, youth, civil rights and community activists and progressive thinkers that can give voice to the frustration and anger of millions in today’s jobless recovery. This coalition could be capable of unifying the forces of Main Street against Wall Street.

Progressive populist majority

The right wing has successfully crafted a narrative about working class anger—represented by the xenophobic, aggressively white and ultra-conservative Tea Party movement—which the mainstream media has largely bought into.

But it is a picture of populist economic discontent greatly at odds with the reality experienced by most workers in the US, whose frustration with the economic status quo cannot be conflated with the activities of the Tea Party movement, which according to a New York Times/CBS poll, only counts three percent of the population as active members.

From Social Security to fair trade legislation to raising taxes on the rich, polling consistently shows that most in the US reject the conservative movement’s economic agenda.

As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., recently noted, while there is widespread discontent right now, it “is better represented by the moderate voters who expressed quiet disillusionment to President Obama at the CNBC town hall meeting [in September] than by tea party ideologues who proclaim the unconstitutionality of the New Deal and everything since.”

Suffering in silence have been the millions of new voters that the Obama campaign brought into the political process for the first time. This growing majority is, on the whole, younger, less white, less responsive to divisive social issues, and economically to the left of their parents’ generation. It is also a generation that is facing a perilous economic environment.

As a 2009 AFL-CIO report on young workers found: “The status of young workers not only has not improved [since 1999]; its dramatic deterioration is threatening to redefine the norm in job standards. Income, health care, retirement security and confidence in being able to achieve their financial goals are down across the board.”

The labor movement must become the champion of this economically-stressed majority—which has little experience with unions—not only to guarantee its own future relevance, but because there is no other institution on the political landscape that has the resources and the political incentive to mobilize this emerging majority behind an agenda of economic justice and political empowerment.

None of this will reverse labor’s declining fortunes in the short term, but it can at least lay the foundation for a new progressive populist infrastructure and agenda, which is the necessary basis for future electoral and organizing successes.

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told panelists at a Working America forum held this fall, the labor movement has to “recapture the moment and take control of the national conversation.”

“We need to fundamentally restructure our economy,” he said. “That’s a long-term job, but one we should start now.”

Charles Townley is a Washington, D.C.-based labor activist and communicator.