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.