The Post-Wisconsin Game Plan
An awareness of this led one union with a history of providing potent support to national Democrats to announce in April that it is shifting its focus to state and local fights. Expressing deep frustration with the failure of national Democrats to advance prolabor federal legislation or to aggressively back union battles in the states, the International Association of Fire Fighters announced it would indefinitely suspend all contributions to federal candidates. “It’s a pattern of disappointments…. Our friends simply have not found a way to actually deliver on behalf of workers and the middle class,” explained IAFF president Harold Schaitberger, whose members—often in uniform—have been out front at state and local demonstrations to preserve collective bargaining rights and oppose service cuts. “We are…turning the spigot off and we are redirecting our resources and our efforts out to the various states where we are fighting these fights.” To have the greatest impact, though, the focus on state-level work must involve more than shifting money from federal to state campaign treasuries. Real movements must be built in the states to hold officials to account and keep low-income and working-class Americans engaged as they push ideas up from the local and state levels to the federal level.
Savvy labor leaders are conscious of these demands, but they would do well to consider a historical precedent. After the 1932 election, Franklin Roosevelt found himself possessed of the presidency and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. But he did not have the kind of majorities he needed to advance all of what came to be known as the New Deal. One of his great challenges was that in key states—California, Washington, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York, among others—labor and farm groups were developing left-leaning movements that often operated beyond the boundaries of the Democratic Party. Time magazine referred to a moment when “the U.S. political ferment” was beginning to “seethe, burble, and spill over in dozens of different places.”
As the 1934 and 1936 elections approached, Roosevelt recognized that he had to align with these groups, even if it put him at odds with some conservative Democrats, to build the broad coalitions he needed. In the summer of 1934, after a wave of militant labor organizing and localized general strikes had swept cities across the country, he came to Wisconsin, where Senator Robert La Follette Jr. and former Governor Philip La Follette were forging an independent Progressive Party. Knowing that he could not dance around the question of his relationship with the Wisconsin Progressives, the Minnesota Farmer-Laborites and groups like them across the country, the president distanced himself from the conservatives in his own party, hailed La Follette and delivered a populist appeal for unity “irrespective of many older political traditions” to battle the economic royalists who would turn the country back toward “the old law of the tooth and the claw.” Responding to the state-based movements and politics of his day, Roosevelt proposed a more ambitious politics that “recognizes that man is indeed his brother’s keeper, insists that the laborer is worthy of his hire, demands that justice shall rule the mighty as well as the weak.”
The appeal worked, expanding the New Deal coalition, giving Democrats and their independent progressives historic victories and preparing the ground for FDR’s epic 1936 re-election. Times have changed. And Barack Obama is not Franklin Roosevelt. But those who would dare to dream that Obama and the Democrats might yet be turned toward a more aggressively progressive and militantly prolabor politics would be wise to recognize the lesson of history that says the hard work of building independent movements in the states remains the best route to changing the politics of the nation.