The Post-Wisconsin Game Plan
Even as Obama tries to stand above the turbulence, his re-election campaign has reaped benefits from it. The president, a frequent visitor to the battleground state of Wisconsin in 2009 and 2010, has not been there since the battle over Walker’s proposal exploded. But his approval ratings are up in a state where the polarization between Republicans and Democrats has become stark. That’s a dynamic the White House recognizes. “The president’s political people…watch what’s happening in the battleground states,” explains Cobble. “So if these movements start to pick up steam, if the unions start getting things going, that’s the best way to get the notice of Democrats in Washington and to get them to say and do more on the economic justice issues.”
Even if the White House is watching and waiting, some senior Democrats “get” the significance of what is happening in the battleground states, and their experience is instructive. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a freshman Democrat up for re-election next year in a state that backed Obama in 2008 but then swung hard to the Republicans in 2010, argues that Kasich’s “outrageous” assault on collective bargaining provides an opening for a bolder politics. Brown threw himself into the fight, using personal appearances, media interviews and his website to urge on protests and gather support for the veto referendum. “Ohio Republicans are waging a full scale war on working families,” declared Brown. His words and deeds were far more aggressive than DC-based consultants recommend for senators facing tough re-election races. But polls conducted after Brown started speaking out found him opening up a wide lead over prospective Republican challengers. “Sherrod Brown appears to be in a much stronger position now than he was just three months ago,” explains Public Policy Polling president Dean Debnam. “There’s been a very significant shift in the Ohio political landscape toward the Democrats.”
In many senses, Brown’s approach represents a dream scenario for progressives. Republicans push too hard; movements push back and elected Democrats align with them, strengthening both the movements and the party’s electoral prospects. But Brown has always been a more labor-friendly and adventurous Democrat than most. The challenge is to build state-based movements that are muscular enough to win immediate fights (blocking bad legislation, preventing cuts, preserving embattled unions, organizing new workers) while pulling Democrats—including the president—away from the politics of caution and compromise.
SEIU’s Fight for a Fair Economy reflects this long-term thinking, with its emphasis on using door-to-door community organizing to reach out to union members and nonmembers and build mass movements of low-income and working-class people in Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee and other cities. Instead of merely steering tens of millions of dollars from the union treasury into traditional political organizing, with a tight emphasis on gearing up for elections, SEIU’s still-developing plan envisions mobilizing coalitions to fight at the state level for public services and public education, to mount mass protests like those seen in Wisconsin and to engage in local and state policy fights. Electing better policy-makers is part of the equation, but the emphasis on neighborhood organizing, coalition building and demonstrations suggests that what is created could have significantly more staying power than campaigning as usual.
SEIU’s is not the only initiative by a major union that proposes to take it to the states. Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Larry Cohen responded to attacks on collective bargaining by promoting a We Are One campaign that attracted broad support and helped produce hundreds of April 4 rallies and teach-ins to oppose the assault on workers’ rights. National Nurses United went into the thick of the Wisconsin protests with a Blame Wall Street campaign that called for addressing “the budget deficit with a just rebalancing of the responsibility of the corporate elite and the rich.”
That message, now going national via NNU’s Contract With Main Street campaign, is vital to shifting a debate that too frequently begins with an assumption that officials have no option aside from cuts. And it is being amplified by National People’s Action and its allies, which are ramping up their own Make Wall Street Pay campaigns against big banks (including Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America), with a focus on foreclosure fights and going on the offense to fix the revenue crisis. The new US Uncut movement is invading bank lobbies and corporate headquarters with the message “No Cuts Until Corporate Tax Cheats Pay Up!” This spring, groups like Americans United for Change, MoveOn.org and Progressive Democrats of America have cheered on the heated challenges to proposed Medicare and Medicaid cuts that so rattled Republican Congress members at town hall meetings.
This tactical shift toward mass mobilization and action—as opposed to relying merely on election-focused list building, member education and media campaigns—has been casually compared to the ginning up of the Tea Party movement by David and Charles Koch and their allies after the battering Republicans took in the 2008 elections. To the extent that the these new initiatives emphasize mass rallies and a presence at town meetings held by House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan and other Republican Congress members, the comparison is appropriate. The difference, of course, is that unions are genuinely popular organizations, unlike Koch Industries. The relationship of these efforts to the Democratic Party, moreover, is not so straightforward as that of the Kochs, the Tea Party and the GOP.
On April 4—the very day We Are One rallies urged on by CWA’s Cohen and allies were taking place across the country—President Obama signaled that he was taking the first step toward formalizing his re-election campaign. Obama and his crew could not have been unaware of the We Are One mobilization, but they did not so much embrace it as surf it. If that is the pattern going into 2012, it is hard to see how state-based organizing will “change the environment” sufficiently to produce an election about creating a fair economy—as opposed to kinder, gentler variations of GOP budget-tightening proposals. If the efforts to mobilize new coalitions in 2011 evolve into traditional union election work in 2012, that could help Obama, but it is unlikely to spawn a more labor-friendly politics.