The Post-Wisconsin Game Plan
Mary Kay Henry had just spent a day talking with many of the thousands of Wisconsinites who had packed the State Capitol in Madison for the February protests against Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposals to scrap collective bargaining rights and slash funding for public education and services. Now, as she waited in a legislative hearing room that had been turned into a makeshift studio for a Pennsylvania labor radio show, the new president of the 2.2 million–member Service Employees International Union was marveling at what she had seen. “It’s inspiring, so inspiring, but we have to pay attention to what’s happening here,” she said, in a calm, thoughtful voice. “We’ve got to take this national, and we’ve got to keep the spirit, the energy. We’ve got to do it right.”
Henry was not just speaking in the excitement of the moment. Even before the Wisconsin uprising and ensuing demonstrations in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Maine, SEIU had been drawing the outlines of a Fight for a Fair Economy campaign that would use the resources of the union to mobilize low-wage workers—be they union members or not—into a movement aimed at transforming a national debate that has been defined by conservative talking points and ginned-up Tea Party “populism.” After the frustrating experience of trying to get the Employee Free Choice Act through a supposedly friendly Congress in the first two years of President Obama’s administration, Henry and a growing number of labor leaders are coming to recognize that simply electing Democrats is not enough. A memo that circulated in January among members of the union’s executive board declared, “We can’t spark an organizing surge without changing the environment, so that workers see unions not as self-interested institutions but as vehicles through which they can collectively stand up for a more fair economy.”
Post-Wisconsin, there is a tentative but emerging consensus that mass movements at the state level might matter just as much to the broader goals of labor and the left as traditional election-oriented campaigning. As Steve Cobble, former political director of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaigns of the 1980s, argues, “The energy that’s developed in Wisconsin and Ohio, and that could develop in a lot of other states, is what’s needed to renew the coalitions that can re-elect Obama in 2012 and elect a lot of Democrats. But it should go further than that. With the right organizing push, unions can build a base that forces Obama and the Democrats to take more progressive stands and to govern accordingly.”
The size of the demonstrations in the states, and the agility with which protest movements have pivoted to political fights that could shift control of governorships and legislatures, has prompted this reassessment of strategy by labor and its allies. Rather than a single-minded focus on electing Democrats—or the rare friendly Republican—the idea is that more might be accomplished by directing cash and organizing hours to (as one SEIU draft document suggests) “mobilizing underpaid, underemployed, and unemployed workers” and “channeling anger about jobs into action for positive change.”
Not everyone, even within the progressive labor world, has full confidence in this approach. Henry has conceded that the decision to focus more on nonunion workers is risky. The talk is of a major expenditure of resources, with some 1,500 SEIU staffers fanning out in seventeen cities to knock on more than 3 million doors—including those of millions of non-SEIU members. Some worry that this is not the most strategic use of resources. Veteran organizer Jane McAlevey argues that intensive engagement with union members should take precedence over a diffuse attempt to mobilize nonunion workers for mass rallies with an uncertain purpose. “The go-big, go-wide and go-shallow model may generate 2012 voter IDs outside their base, but it’s not going to mobilize a real fight for a fair economy,” says McAlevey. “To do it right requires deep work with their members and their members’ organic connections in their communities.”
Despite differences over precise strategies, however, there is a growing understanding that the greatest threats to unions as forces in the workplace and in political life are posed at the state level—where GOP governors and legislators are attacking collective bargaining rights while proposing brutal cuts in spending on education and services, and where the cuts proposed by some Democratic governors are only slightly less painful. Unions are recognizing the need for more flexible, independent and aggressive organizing to meet those challenges.
SEIU and other national labor and progressive organizations will still commit significant resources to re-electing Obama, hedging their bets at a moment when fears about the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling have created pressure to match the spending of anti-Obama forces. But after too many years of steering enormous energy into national election campaigns—only to be confronted with presidential caution, Congressional gridlock and the rise of an extreme and energized Republican right—savvy union officials frankly admit that they must be more than mere cogs in party machines.
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AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka speaks of a “far more expansive” strategy where “you’ll see us spending our precious resources to build our structure to hold [elected officials of all parties] accountable.” The details of what Trumka describes as a “full-time, around-the-calendar political program”—as opposed to a purely election-focused plan—are still being hashed out by the federation. And different unions will have distinct approaches. But one thing is clear: this strategy can’t be implemented through the centralized, one-size-fits-all processes many Beltway-based groups are used to. “Of course, it’s easier to come up with some big national plan and say everyone’s got to buy in,” explains Michael Lighty, director of public policy for the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United. “When you are working in the states, you have to be a lot more attuned to the grassroots, and to the distinct politics of communities.”
States have unique political cultures, quirky voting patterns, divides between heavily union and nonunion regions that can be finessed only by those who understand the territory. “I’ve heard from people in other states who want to know how they can do what’s been done in Wisconsin, and I tell them it’s not that easy,” says Ben Manski, an organizer of the Wisconsin Wave protest coalition. “They have to focus in on their own strengths, their own history and their own challenges.”
Whereas Wisconsin activists are focused on recall elections this summer that could remove Republican state senators who have backed Walker’s antilabor agenda, Mainers are lobbying moderate Republican legislators to break with right-wing Governor Paul LePage. While there is talk in Michigan of trying to recall Governor Rick Snyder, in Ohio there is no recall option. But Ohio has a veto referendum provision that unions are using to try to overturn Governor John Kasich’s attacks on collective bargaining.
Every one of these state battles turns a labor struggle that initially played out in the streets into an edgy political fight. Instead of waiting for the next election, labor and progressive campaigners are forcing votes on their schedules to address unprecedented assaults on union rights and public services.
This is not politics as usual. It scares some Democrats, especially DC insiders who don’t want to be pulled in fifty different directions. They worry: will these new efforts draw attention and resources away from the 2012 election cycle?
The answer is yes, in a sense, but that is not necessarily bad news for national Democrats.
No one misses the point made by Massachusetts Congressman Mike Capuano—a former mayor and ardent backer of state-based struggles—who warned a recent Progressive Democrats of America forum that the election of a Republican president and Congress in 2012 could open the political and policy equivalents of “the gates of hell” at all levels of government. But understanding the importance of the coming election does not require a rigid focus on national politics by every labor and progressive group, or the adoption of the strategies and talking points of the re-election campaign of a president who, in the words of National Nurses United (NNU) executive director Rose Ann DeMoro, “has yet to address the heart of the problem with a clear statement of who is responsible for this crisis, the corporate class and the right.”
Obama and the political operations associated with him, including the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America, have maintained an arm’s-length stance, offering some supportive words but not a lot of physical presence where unions are fighting Republican governors. And the president’s team is steering clear of wrangling with Democratic governors like Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, where unions are furious with Democrats for advancing a plan to restrict collective bargaining rights regarding healthcare at the municipal level. After members of public employee unions packed the Statehouse in Boston to protest the legislation, Patrick distanced himself from the measure, saying unions lacked “a deep enough voice for their purposes or for mine” in the plan. The governor had to respond to police officers, firefighters and other public employees crowding the corridors of his Statehouse.