In economically hard-hit eastern Pennsylvania, Ed O’Brien, a steelworker and union official, is running for Congress against incumbent Republican Pat Toomey, a well-funded former investment banker who champions Social Security privatization and regressive tax cuts. “I ran because working families, the middle class, had absolutely no voice in Washington from this district,” O’Brien said. After a close race last election, O’Brien’s chances have been buoyed by the sagging economy. But his biggest advantage is the sophisticated political organizing of the labor movement.

From its low point in 1994 with the Gingrich-engineered Republican triumph, organized labor has revived its political operations by mobilizing members and their families through direct educational work about candidates and public policy, especially economic issues linked to work. It has refined its organizational capacity to register members, inform them (most effectively at the workplace) and get them to vote for union-backed candidates. Now AFSCME (public workers) president Gerald McEntee can plausibly argue that labor has “the best internal political infrastructure of any organization in the country,” including the political parties. Increasingly, unions have encouraged their members, like O’Brien, to run for office or have supported labor-friendly candidates in primaries, and many Democrats campaign on a “working-family-lite” version of labor’s agenda.

Yet all this has yielded at best a precarious, right-leaning stalemate in Washington and a mixed bag at state level. Even as labor has helped resurrect Democratic fortunes, many unionists are unhappy with the party’s performance. “Our members have been betrayed by Democrats who were not willing to support organizing campaigns, not willing to fight for labor law reform and not willing to fight for manufacturing jobs,” complained Chris Chafe, political director of UNITE, the textile and apparel union. “It’s not like we’re discounting allies in the Democratic Party who support our issues. The shift is that we won’t be taken for granted. It’s the feeling of many in labor that we’ve maintained the structure of the Democratic Party while the party has ignored our issues.”

But what should labor do? “I think it’s not so much doing things differently but doing more of what we have been doing,” especially grassroots activism, argues AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. “It has helped us build a stronger political focus in the labor movement.” Even the most vociferous critics of the party still want Democratic control of Congress to thwart what AFSCME political director Larry Scanlon calls “Armageddon,” or Republican control of all federal government branches. Democrats have at least offered defense against the worst GOP initiatives, like Bush’s effort to deprive Homeland Security workers of union rights.

Nonetheless, some strategists argue that unions ought to support more sympathetic Republicans. This isn’t entirely new: There have always been conservative union leaders who endorsed Republicans, and there once was a liberal Republican bloc that wasn’t antiunion. And despite the Bush Administration’s avid courtship of some labor leaders, there is no sign of a broad labor shift to Republicans. By early September, about the same percentage of labor money was going to Republicans this year (8 percent) as in the past decade, even though the Teamsters gave the GOP 17 percent of its contributions, compared with 7 percent in the last election cycle, and the Carpenters’ contributions rose from 6 percent to 15 percent. But this overstates support, since few Republicans receive labor’s most valued asset, motivated troops, and local leaders often defy pro-Republican commands from HQ. To Teamsters president James Hoffa’s consternation, Florida Teamsters supported Democrat Bill McBride for governor over Jeb Bush. Although the Florida Carpenters backed Jeb, many Carpenters members are skeptical about the cover that their president, Doug McCarron, has given to Bush’s anti-labor policies. “What McCarron’s got is not worth it,” one Carpenters official concluded.

The New York governor’s race is a different story, partly because several relatively progressive unions–including 1199 SEIU (hospital and healthcare workers), the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), the New York City teachers’ union and UNITE–endorsed the incumbent and strong favorite, Republican George Pataki. But AFSCME, the Communications Workers (CWA), UAW, some National Education Association locals and the big SEIU janitors’ local are backing Comptroller Carl McCall, who has also been endorsed by the Working Families Party, a union-backed minor party [see Sifry, page 16].

Pataki won his union support by providing state money to raise healthcare workers’ wages and to aid union health funds, supporting the local garment industry after September 11, preventing contractors from using state funding to fight unionization and authorizing union recognition by checking signed membership cards at Indian casinos. UNITE president Bruce Raynor said that he would never call Pataki the union’s savior, and he described McCall as a friend who would make a good governor, but “Pataki delivered the goods” and deserved support.

Pataki’s actions could help UNITE organize thousands of workers at state-funded programs for the developmentally disabled, and help HERE organize upstate casino workers. HERE president John Wilhelm insists that organizing new members is the single most important task for the labor movement, not just for its survival but also for increasing political clout. If there had been several million more members in 2000 and the same labor effort, he argues, there would be a Democratic Congress and President now. If Republicans help with organizing, he favors rewarding them–and wonders why Democrats can’t understand the arithmetic better. Seen as a strategy for union growth, the Pataki endorsement goes beyond conventional interest-group unionism.

But McCall, an African-American, has used his control over public pension funds to advance both union organizing (pushing “responsible contractor” guidelines that encourage pension-financed buildings to use union janitors) and labor-backed reforms of corporate governance. Unlike Pataki, he champions many traditional union legislative goals, such as a higher minimum wage. “You cannot call this guy [Pataki] pro-labor,” argues CWA district political director and Working Families Party co-chair Bob Master. “To the extent we reinforce the power of the Republican Party, we dig our own grave…. I don’t think we should allow any party to take us for granted, but the answer is not to embrace these tepidly pro-labor Republicans but to articulate clear politics and fight for them inside the Democratic Party.”

AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal understands that unions often need some Republican support in narrowly divided legislatures, but he argues, “We shouldn’t be lowering the bar for our endorsement. Instead of endorsing more mediocre Republicans, we should endorse fewer mediocre Democrats. We need a higher standard overall.” New Jersey GOP Congressman Michael Ferguson is an interesting case. Several unions supported him after he broke with his party on some key votes, such as creating a workplace ergonomics standard, even though he voted pro-labor only one-third of the time. “Who is more deserving of support?” asks Luis Navarro, political director of the SEIU, which contributed early to Ferguson’s campaign (though SEIU local unions in the state recently endorsed his opponent). “Someone willing to take tough votes on our behalf? Or the promise of potential support from folks who aren’t in office?”

According to Rosenthal, however, “we’ve created something of a double standard,” letting Republicans off more easily. A few unions have chosen to make no endorsement in races with relatively unsupportive Democrats, such as Representatives Ken Lucas of Kentucky and Dennis Moore of Kansas, whose lifetime voting records are still better than Ferguson’s. In Indianapolis, UNITE didn’t endorse Democratic Congresswoman Julia Carson, with a 98 percent labor voting record, because she failed to help adequately on an important organizing drive. Such tough standards are good but need to be consistent.

If they want to work on Republicans, Rosenthal thinks unions should help moderate candidates mount primary challenges to the thirty-one right-wing Republican members of Congress who have 35,000-90,000 union members in their districts yet still vote with labor less than 10 percent of the time. Even if a Democrat can’t win, Democrats can sometimes vote against the more conservative candidate in the Republican primary.

Unions can certainly fight primary election battles for stronger pro-labor Democrats. In this year’s Oklahoma primary election, an electrical worker named Joe Smith, with intensive union support, narrowly ousted long-term Democratic State Senator Dave Herbert, a leading promoter of the hated right-to-work statute approved last year. Also, after redistricting in northeastern Ohio, the Steelworkers successfully helped Democratic State Senator Tim Ryan oust Congressman Tom Sawyer, a generally pro-labor Democrat, because of Sawyer’s vote for NAFTA.

Without serious reform, US election laws doom most minor parties. The late Tony Mazzocchi’s Labor Party agitates for a progressive agenda rather than running candidates, while in New York, the Working Families Party has provided a distinct electoral voice mainly by cross-endorsing progressive Democrats. But such “fusion” party efforts are legal in only a few states.

Labor is also involved with some political coalitions, working with local branches of national networks (such as USAction, ACORN and the Industrial Areas Foundation), new “civic participation” groups focused on immigrant workers in Los Angeles and New York, and local alliances like Progressive Wisconsin and Colorado’s Front Range. But there is still a need for a well-organized progressive force, linking labor and its allies, that can function effectively in both local and, ultimately, national politics.

According to AFSCME’s Larry Scanlon, political discussions among unions and between labor and other progressive organizations have waned in recent years. SEIU president Andy Stern recommends better collaboration with likely allies, such as environmental, civil rights and women’s organizations, that make serious electoral efforts. “Maybe we can decide on some of the candidates ahead of time,” he says, before candidates even decide to run. Unions have often been reluctant to be part of coalitions they can’t control, but each component of any effective new progressive bloc would need to acknowledge a set of common, long-term goals and try to put them before short-term, parochial interests–or at least remain amicable during disagreements.

CWA executive vice president Larry Cohen argues that labor’s politics has to be built around talking at work. “If you randomly pick members from different unions and talk about taxes, healthcare, prescription drugs and maybe even Iraq, they’ll come up with the same answers. The key is to stimulate that conversation” and allow it to guide political action, he observes. Such grassroots discussions must be ongoing. But with a few exceptions, such as the CWA, the Steelworkers and UNITE, labor hasn’t made much progress in creating what Rosenthal calls a “seamless operation,” moving from elections to continuous mobilization around issues.

The opportunities are great. John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argue in The Emerging Democratic Majority that immigrants, women and professionals, who are growing in political importance and increasingly lean toward progressive views, make a national Democratic majority likely in the near future. That might appear to leave out unions, as other analysts who’ve touted “soccer moms” or “wired workers” as the next big thing for the Democrats tend to do. Yet the projected Democratic majority won’t be realized unless the current party base, including unions, remains strong and steadfast. In any case, unions are organizing immigrants, women are strongly sympathetic to unions, 11 percent of professionals are union members and, in varied ways, all three groups share union criticism of the tyranny of society by market values. Polls also indicate growing general support for unions, and there are three times as many nonunion voters who feel strong sympathies for unions as there are actual union members, likely among these growing Democratic constituencies. So organized labor is far from irrelevant to this new majority, though unions will need to open themselves to wider coalitions and to broaden their ideological horizons, for example by taking environmental issues more seriously. Looking for friendly Republicans, by contrast, seems to be a diversion born out of understandable apprehension and frustration, not a forward-looking strategy.