Mary Kay Henry had just spent a day talking with many of the thousands of Wisconsinites who had packed the State Capitol in Madison for the February protests against Republican Governor Scott Walker’s proposals to scrap collective bargaining rights and slash funding for public education and services. Now, as she waited in a legislative hearing room that had been turned into a makeshift studio for a Pennsylvania labor radio show, the new president of the 2.2 million–member Service Employees International Union was marveling at what she had seen. “It’s inspiring, so inspiring, but we have to pay attention to what’s happening here,” she said, in a calm, thoughtful voice. “We’ve got to take this national, and we’ve got to keep the spirit, the energy. We’ve got to do it right.”
Henry was not just speaking in the excitement of the moment. Even before the Wisconsin uprising and ensuing demonstrations in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Maine, SEIU had been drawing the outlines of a Fight for a Fair Economy campaign that would use the resources of the union to mobilize low-wage workers—be they union members or not—into a movement aimed at transforming a national debate that has been defined by conservative talking points and ginned-up Tea Party “populism.” After the frustrating experience of trying to get the Employee Free Choice Act through a supposedly friendly Congress in the first two years of President Obama’s administration, Henry and a growing number of labor leaders are coming to recognize that simply electing Democrats is not enough. A memo that circulated in January among members of the union’s executive board declared, “We can’t spark an organizing surge without changing the environment, so that workers see unions not as self-interested institutions but as vehicles through which they can collectively stand up for a more fair economy.”
Post-Wisconsin, there is a tentative but emerging consensus that mass movements at the state level might matter just as much to the broader goals of labor and the left as traditional election-oriented campaigning. As Steve Cobble, former political director of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition campaigns of the 1980s, argues, “The energy that’s developed in Wisconsin and Ohio, and that could develop in a lot of other states, is what’s needed to renew the coalitions that can re-elect Obama in 2012 and elect a lot of Democrats. But it should go further than that. With the right organizing push, unions can build a base that forces Obama and the Democrats to take more progressive stands and to govern accordingly.”
The size of the demonstrations in the states, and the agility with which protest movements have pivoted to political fights that could shift control of governorships and legislatures, has prompted this reassessment of strategy by labor and its allies. Rather than a single-minded focus on electing Democrats—or the rare friendly Republican—the idea is that more might be accomplished by directing cash and organizing hours to (as one SEIU draft document suggests) “mobilizing underpaid, underemployed, and unemployed workers” and “channeling anger about jobs into action for positive change.”
Not everyone, even within the progressive labor world, has full confidence in this approach. Henry has conceded that the decision to focus more on nonunion workers is risky. The talk is of a major expenditure of resources, with some 1,500 SEIU staffers fanning out in seventeen cities to knock on more than 3 million doors—including those of millions of non-SEIU members. Some worry that this is not the most strategic use of resources. Veteran organizer Jane McAlevey argues that intensive engagement with union members should take precedence over a diffuse attempt to mobilize nonunion workers for mass rallies with an uncertain purpose. “The go-big, go-wide and go-shallow model may generate 2012 voter IDs outside their base, but it’s not going to mobilize a real fight for a fair economy,” says McAlevey. “To do it right requires deep work with their members and their members’ organic connections in their communities.”
Despite differences over precise strategies, however, there is a growing understanding that the greatest threats to unions as forces in the workplace and in political life are posed at the state level—where GOP governors and legislators are attacking collective bargaining rights while proposing brutal cuts in spending on education and services, and where the cuts proposed by some Democratic governors are only slightly less painful. Unions are recognizing the need for more flexible, independent and aggressive organizing to meet those challenges.
SEIU and other national labor and progressive organizations will still commit significant resources to re-electing Obama, hedging their bets at a moment when fears about the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling have created pressure to match the spending of anti-Obama forces. But after too many years of steering enormous energy into national election campaigns—only to be confronted with presidential caution, Congressional gridlock and the rise of an extreme and energized Republican right—savvy union officials frankly admit that they must be more than mere cogs in party machines.
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AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka speaks of a “far more expansive” strategy where “you’ll see us spending our precious resources to build our structure to hold [elected officials of all parties] accountable.” The details of what Trumka describes as a “full-time, around-the-calendar political program”—as opposed to a purely election-focused plan—are still being hashed out by the federation. And different unions will have distinct approaches. But one thing is clear: this strategy can’t be implemented through the centralized, one-size-fits-all processes many Beltway-based groups are used to. “Of course, it’s easier to come up with some big national plan and say everyone’s got to buy in,” explains Michael Lighty, director of public policy for the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United. “When you are working in the states, you have to be a lot more attuned to the grassroots, and to the distinct politics of communities.”
States have unique political cultures, quirky voting patterns, divides between heavily union and nonunion regions that can be finessed only by those who understand the territory. “I’ve heard from people in other states who want to know how they can do what’s been done in Wisconsin, and I tell them it’s not that easy,” says Ben Manski, an organizer of the Wisconsin Wave protest coalition. “They have to focus in on their own strengths, their own history and their own challenges.”
Whereas Wisconsin activists are focused on recall elections this summer that could remove Republican state senators who have backed Walker’s antilabor agenda, Mainers are lobbying moderate Republican legislators to break with right-wing Governor Paul LePage. While there is talk in Michigan of trying to recall Governor Rick Snyder, in Ohio there is no recall option. But Ohio has a veto referendum provision that unions are using to try to overturn Governor John Kasich’s attacks on collective bargaining.
Every one of these state battles turns a labor struggle that initially played out in the streets into an edgy political fight. Instead of waiting for the next election, labor and progressive campaigners are forcing votes on their schedules to address unprecedented assaults on union rights and public services.
This is not politics as usual. It scares some Democrats, especially DC insiders who don’t want to be pulled in fifty different directions. They worry: will these new efforts draw attention and resources away from the 2012 election cycle?
The answer is yes, in a sense, but that is not necessarily bad news for national Democrats.
No one misses the point made by Massachusetts Congressman Mike Capuano—a former mayor and ardent backer of state-based struggles—who warned a recent Progressive Democrats of America forum that the election of a Republican president and Congress in 2012 could open the political and policy equivalents of “the gates of hell” at all levels of government. But understanding the importance of the coming election does not require a rigid focus on national politics by every labor and progressive group, or the adoption of the strategies and talking points of the re-election campaign of a president who, in the words of National Nurses United (NNU) executive director Rose Ann DeMoro, “has yet to address the heart of the problem with a clear statement of who is responsible for this crisis, the corporate class and the right.”
Obama and the political operations associated with him, including the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America, have maintained an arm’s-length stance, offering some supportive words but not a lot of physical presence where unions are fighting Republican governors. And the president’s team is steering clear of wrangling with Democratic governors like Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, where unions are furious with Democrats for advancing a plan to restrict collective bargaining rights regarding healthcare at the municipal level. After members of public employee unions packed the Statehouse in Boston to protest the legislation, Patrick distanced himself from the measure, saying unions lacked “a deep enough voice for their purposes or for mine” in the plan. The governor had to respond to police officers, firefighters and other public employees crowding the corridors of his Statehouse.
Even as Obama tries to stand above the turbulence, his re-election campaign has reaped benefits from it. The president, a frequent visitor to the battleground state of Wisconsin in 2009 and 2010, has not been there since the battle over Walker’s proposal exploded. But his approval ratings are up in a state where the polarization between Republicans and Democrats has become stark. That’s a dynamic the White House recognizes. “The president’s political people…watch what’s happening in the battleground states,” explains Cobble. “So if these movements start to pick up steam, if the unions start getting things going, that’s the best way to get the notice of Democrats in Washington and to get them to say and do more on the economic justice issues.”
Even if the White House is watching and waiting, some senior Democrats “get” the significance of what is happening in the battleground states, and their experience is instructive. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a freshman Democrat up for re-election next year in a state that backed Obama in 2008 but then swung hard to the Republicans in 2010, argues that Kasich’s “outrageous” assault on collective bargaining provides an opening for a bolder politics. Brown threw himself into the fight, using personal appearances, media interviews and his website to urge on protests and gather support for the veto referendum. “Ohio Republicans are waging a full scale war on working families,” declared Brown. His words and deeds were far more aggressive than DC-based consultants recommend for senators facing tough re-election races. But polls conducted after Brown started speaking out found him opening up a wide lead over prospective Republican challengers. “Sherrod Brown appears to be in a much stronger position now than he was just three months ago,” explains Public Policy Polling president Dean Debnam. “There’s been a very significant shift in the Ohio political landscape toward the Democrats.”
In many senses, Brown’s approach represents a dream scenario for progressives. Republicans push too hard; movements push back and elected Democrats align with them, strengthening both the movements and the party’s electoral prospects. But Brown has always been a more labor-friendly and adventurous Democrat than most. The challenge is to build state-based movements that are muscular enough to win immediate fights (blocking bad legislation, preventing cuts, preserving embattled unions, organizing new workers) while pulling Democrats—including the president—away from the politics of caution and compromise.
SEIU’s Fight for a Fair Economy reflects this long-term thinking, with its emphasis on using door-to-door community organizing to reach out to union members and nonmembers and build mass movements of low-income and working-class people in Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Milwaukee and other cities. Instead of merely steering tens of millions of dollars from the union treasury into traditional political organizing, with a tight emphasis on gearing up for elections, SEIU’s still-developing plan envisions mobilizing coalitions to fight at the state level for public services and public education, to mount mass protests like those seen in Wisconsin and to engage in local and state policy fights. Electing better policy-makers is part of the equation, but the emphasis on neighborhood organizing, coalition building and demonstrations suggests that what is created could have significantly more staying power than campaigning as usual.
SEIU’s is not the only initiative by a major union that proposes to take it to the states. Communications Workers of America (CWA) president Larry Cohen responded to attacks on collective bargaining by promoting a We Are One campaign that attracted broad support and helped produce hundreds of April 4 rallies and teach-ins to oppose the assault on workers’ rights. National Nurses United went into the thick of the Wisconsin protests with a Blame Wall Street campaign that called for addressing “the budget deficit with a just rebalancing of the responsibility of the corporate elite and the rich.”
That message, now going national via NNU’s Contract With Main Street campaign, is vital to shifting a debate that too frequently begins with an assumption that officials have no option aside from cuts. And it is being amplified by National People’s Action and its allies, which are ramping up their own Make Wall Street Pay campaigns against big banks (including Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America), with a focus on foreclosure fights and going on the offense to fix the revenue crisis. The new US Uncut movement is invading bank lobbies and corporate headquarters with the message “No Cuts Until Corporate Tax Cheats Pay Up!” This spring, groups like Americans United for Change, MoveOn.org and Progressive Democrats of America have cheered on the heated challenges to proposed Medicare and Medicaid cuts that so rattled Republican Congress members at town hall meetings.
This tactical shift toward mass mobilization and action—as opposed to relying merely on election-focused list building, member education and media campaigns—has been casually compared to the ginning up of the Tea Party movement by David and Charles Koch and their allies after the battering Republicans took in the 2008 elections. To the extent that the these new initiatives emphasize mass rallies and a presence at town meetings held by House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan and other Republican Congress members, the comparison is appropriate. The difference, of course, is that unions are genuinely popular organizations, unlike Koch Industries. The relationship of these efforts to the Democratic Party, moreover, is not so straightforward as that of the Kochs, the Tea Party and the GOP.
On April 4—the very day We Are One rallies urged on by CWA’s Cohen and allies were taking place across the country—President Obama signaled that he was taking the first step toward formalizing his re-election campaign. Obama and his crew could not have been unaware of the We Are One mobilization, but they did not so much embrace it as surf it. If that is the pattern going into 2012, it is hard to see how state-based organizing will “change the environment” sufficiently to produce an election about creating a fair economy—as opposed to kinder, gentler variations of GOP budget-tightening proposals. If the efforts to mobilize new coalitions in 2011 evolve into traditional union election work in 2012, that could help Obama, but it is unlikely to spawn a more labor-friendly politics.
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.