Building to Win
A Progressive ALEC could identify and train thousands to run for local, state and national office; provide support to candidates (training, polling, message development, legislative assistance); run ballot initiatives (campaign finance, living wage, the right to organize, investment in schools not prisons, same-day voter registration); provide a vehicle for national issue campaigns; use the Internet to share information and organize; and build a network of progressive talk-show guests and pundits with a coordinated message. Voter and membership lists, the indispensable currency of local progressive electoral power, could be shared. And, yes, there could even be consolidated pools of cash--imagine a giant Progressive America PAC--that could provide support to this organization until we get real campaign finance reform.
Is this the best model? It would be an improvement in terms of coordination and organization--as long as it didn't become just another Washington-based group but drew on citizen activists, not just as foot soldiers but as leaders and decision-makers.
The great untapped resource in building this infrastructure is the labor movement, the most important progressive-leaning mass-membership organization in America. It has $5 billion in annual resources, and thus at least in theory some of the millions needed to match the right in providing the sort of infrastructure described above. Labor's electoral base and its resources qualify it as the progressive force capable of bringing other allies to the table. But to be more effective in achieving its own objectives and attracting support and cooperation from elements outside the unions, labor must be anchored in a broader political strategy and progressive community.
Despite its new leadership and an increasingly progressive profile, the AFL-CIO has not done enough to build a serious electoral presence at the Congressional district level--let alone at the state legislative or school board level. It has trained only a small number of people to run for office, and there is no national organization that brings labor to the table with other mass-membership organizations to share lists and develop common programs for elections.
Organized labor is in the process of retooling its political operations in an effort to create a more powerful grassroots presence. It has significantly increased the percentage of voters from union households in recent elections. The increase in raw numbers and percentages of union voters is to be celebrated, but those figures do not represent a new majority. It is critical that a retooled and renewed labor strategy recognize that the road to 51 percent (and its future) will have to run through neighborhoods and regions where union membership is low--but where the need for labor-led progressive politics is high. If labor were to become the anchor of a broad progressive coalition, be assured it would gain allies. The fledgling labor-community alliances--for example, the living-wage campaigns that have swept the country--show there is mass support for labor's basic values. There are millions of workers, not just union members, who now recognize that winning labor rights is one of the great civil rights struggles of our time.
Labor cannot build a new progressive politics on its own. We need to recognize that there's a lot of money to be found outside the unions to help develop a progressive infrastructure. The baby boomers alone, at least a third of whom are prounion, have about $10 trillion. And there are many organizations and unaffiliated individuals who share labor's core values--women's and environmental groups being perhaps the most important numerically, but also new civil rights and minority organizations, even an occasional socially responsible businessperson--who are ready to join labor in a common electoral program. But it's unlikely that they'll come together unless labor comes forward.
If the progressive movement is to oppose the right-wing agenda of the Bush Administration and take on America's powerful conservative forces, labor and the wider progressive community need a new strategy. It will be hard for both--unsettling to political routine, demanding of leaders and activists--but at this precarious moment, our future is at stake. Nothing less.