Last week in The Nation, we looked at one of the most positive trends in recent labor history: a pattern of unions signaling that they will put more of their “political” money into grassroots organizing and coalition building – as opposed to tosimply placingthe movement's financial and foot-soldier resources at the service of whatever Democratic candidate happens to be on the ballot.
Unions such as the Service Employees and National Nurses United are investing in smart, grassroots projects in the states – seeking to build on the protest and politics model developed in Wisconsin,wheremass protests against anti-labor initiatives signaled an opening for labor togo on the offensive. At the same time, key unions such asthe Firefighters have signaled that, because of their disappointment with Republicans and Democrats at the federal level, they will be putting all their political money into state and local races and related projects.
Now, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is stepping up with a plan for unions to declare “independence” and back candidates – no matter what their party affiliation – who are committed to support workers and their unions.
Trumka, who was in Wisconsin early and has visited most of the states where battles over labor rights and cuts in public services are playing out, has made no secret of his interest in building on the energy of the new state-based movements.
It is with this in mind that he is now talking about changing the way labor practices politics. And that's a very good thing.
“We are looking hard at how we work in the nation’s political arena. We have listened hard, and what workers want is an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people — in the workplace and in political life,”the AFL-CIO president said in a Friday National Press Club address that could turn out to be one of the most important speeches of the 2012 election cycle. “Our role is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate. It is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country.”
Trumka is not saying that labor unions will no longer back the Democratic party and Democratic candidates – up to and including President Obama. As in the past, labor will lean toward the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. What Trumka is saying, however, is that labor will not simply back Democrats because they are Democrats.
Indeed, he is putting compromise-prone and all-talk-no-action Democrats on notice.
“We’ll be less inclined to support people in the future that aren’t standing up and actually supporting job creation and the type of things that we’re talking about. It doesn’t matter what party they come from. It will be a measuring stick,” Trumka explained on the eve of the speech.
The Press Club address, a high-profile initiative by the leading figure in the American labor movement, included a warning to Democratic officials who think they can make draconian cuts in education and public services – or that they can undermine union rights – simply by claiming that the Republicans would make crueler cuts.
“It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside — the outcome is the same either way,” said Trumka. “If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families’ interests, working people will not support them. This is where our focus will be — now, in 2012 and beyond.”
Practically, what Trumka is talking about is replacing the traditional pre-election mobilization of the union faithful with year-round organizing that is more oriented toward issues and immediate struggles.
But, as is always the case with Trumka when the AFL-CIO president is at his best, there is an idealistic component to the initiative.
At the root of Trumka’s message is an idea that needs to be returned to the center of the political discourse.
“America’s real deficit is a moral deficit — where political choices come down to forcing foster children to wear hand-me-downs while cutting taxes for profitable corporations,” says Trumka, who recognizes that the current assault on labor rights is designed to prevent unions from raising moral concerns in the midst of budget debates.
"Powerful political forces are seeking to silence working people—to drive us out of the national conversation," explains the AFL-CIO president, who noted the irony of anti-labor Republicans hailing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. while neglecting to note that King died while in Memphis to rally support for striking sanitation workers. "I can think," Trumka says, "of no greater proof of the moral decay in our public life than that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker would dare give a Martin Luther King Day speech hailing Dr. King at the same time that he drafted a bill to take away collective bargaining rights from sanitation workers in Wisconsin."
To counter that "moral decay," Trumka gets specific about the real economic crisis in America:
"Here in Washington, the Republicans in Congress have defunded housing counselors and fuel aid for the poor, and they are blocking worker training and transportation infrastructure.
"But the final outrage of these budgets is hidden in the fine print. In state after state and here in Washington, these so called fiscal hawks are actually doing almost nothing to cut the deficit. The federal budget embraced by House Republicans, for example, cuts $4.3 trillion in spending, but gives out $4.2 trillion in tax cuts that disproportionately benefit wealthy individuals and corporations. Florida is gutting aid for jobless workers and using the money saved to cut already-low business taxes. At the end of the day, our governments will be in no better fiscal shape than when we started—they are just being used as a pass-through to enrich the already rich—at a time when inequality stands at historic levels.
"Think about the message these budgets send: Sacrifice is for the weak. The powerful and well-connected get tax cuts.
"All these incredible events should be understood as part of a single challenge. It is not just a political challenge—it’s a moral challenge. Because these events signal a new and dangerous phase of a concerted effort to change the very nature of America—to turn this into an “I’ve got mine” nation and replace the land of liberty and justice for all with the land of the rich, by the rich, for the rich."
If organized labor seeks to add this moral message to the debate, and if it uses its still-considerable political muscle to back those Democrats, Greens, independents and, yes, Republicans who are willing to embrace a more class-conscious politics, it could become as influential a player in the 2012 election cycle as the Tea Party movement was in 2010.
To do this, however, Trumka and his allies must meet two requirements that will demand not just new thinking but new commitments on the part of the labor movement:
1. They have to start at the grassroots, by supporting the labor, farm, student and community coalitions that are resisting cuts in states across the country this year – and that are fighting any attempt to undermine Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security by politicians of both parties in Washington. Building and strengthening these coalitions in 2011 in states such as Wisconsin, Florida, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania – all of which happen to be presidential battleground states – is the single best investment in progressive, pro-labor politics heading into the 2012 cycle. It creates an infrastructure that is not just about winning one election for one candidate or party but that seeks to achieve practical ends, both immediately and in the long-term.
2. Labor must be ready to put real pressure on the Democrats, by supporting smart primary challenges (as they did to some extent in 2010) and by withholding money from incumbents who have let them down. Labor must look for Republicans who are willing to break with their party on key issues – something that the union movement historically did with such success that, into the 1990s, there were Republican legislators in states across the country (and a few members of the U.S. House and Senate) who maintained strong pro-labor voting records. And labor must recognize the value of independent and third-party campaigns that, with sufficient union backing in communities where an independent labor-left infrastructure has been or might be established (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Boulder, Missoula, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Madison, Detroit, Toledo, Burlington, Boston, to name but a few), could elect pro-union stalwarts and put real pressure on both major parties.
Ultimately, party labels mean very little. It's the policies that matter. And to the extent that the labor movement recognizes this fundamental political reality, we will have a better politics in Wisconsin, in Maine, in Ohioand across the United States.