After it was too late to make a difference, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry denounced the debt-ceiling agreement as “a raw deal for working people and the 30 million Americans who are still looking for work.” In fact, neither SEIU, the AFL-CIO, nor AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka aggressively mobilized union members against the deal over the past month. True, emails to labor listserves were sent, but where were the rallies or marches demanding that Obama invoke the 14th Amendment rather than slash domestic programs? Where was the civil disobedience against Democratic Senators who owe their seats to union support but now refuse to go public against Obama’s proposals? Labor’s inaction reflects a deeper problem: its strategic reliance on electing Democrats to boost union power has failed, but it is staying on this course heading into 2012.
The debt ceiling fight is just the latest example of union leaders’ inability to hold Obama and Senate Democrats accountable. Instead of holding mass public protests against the emerging deal — which would have been easy given the popular uproar among progressives — labor largely ignored Democrats and acted as if Republicans alone were to blame.
No wonder labor’s agenda is ignored. Obama and Senate Democrats can back Wall Street and Republican economic policies while still getting union money and grassroots labor electoral outreach.
Labor’s Lost Agenda
Following the 2008 elections, organized labor saw its future in the fruits of its victories. Obama and the Democratic House and Senate majorities would enact health reform with a public option, comprehensive immigration reform, and the Employee Free Choice Act.
Former SEIU President Andy Stern told me in March of 2009 that all three of the above could possibly be accomplished in Obama’s first year. He joked that labor may have to find new issues to prioritize in 2010.
Today, Stern is gone, a victim of his and SEIU’s failed electoral and overall membership-building strategy. EFCA died in 2009, immigration reform is off the political radar screen, and passage of job-killing free-trade deals candidate Obama once criticized will soon be the President’s next priority.
If labor leaders acknowledged that President Obama and top Senate Democrats are “refusing to help working families,” it would force a debate over what labor does in the 2012 elections. It would get union leaders off automatic pilot and demand a serious reassessment of whether prioritizing national elections is really the most effective strategy in light of the post-2008 failures.
But Henry, Trumka, and other labor leaders do not want to address such difficult questions. So they continue to play a make believe game pretending that Democrats are out to create jobs and save the social safety net while Republicans, in Henry’s words, are “fighting tooth and nail to protect tax giveaways to corporations and millionaires.”
As if President Obama did not extend the Bush tax breaks for millionaires last December.
And then topped this in recent weeks by promoting cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Labor’s — and the Left’s — Uncertain Future
Labor stays loyal to Obama and Senate Democrats out of fear that what happened in Wisconsin could occur nationally if unions stay on the electoral sidelines and Republicans seize control of all three branches of government. Further, the Obama White House gives union leaders like Andy Stern and Richard Trumka “access,” which these officials confuse with actual power (to this end, Obama met with leaders of the AFL-CIO Executive Board on August 2 to reassure them that he is “the workers’ president.” The union leaders did not attack Obama’s anti-worker stances at the meeting).
But the main reason labor allows itself to be taken for granted by the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats reflects a larger problem: a reliance on electing Democrats as its key strategy for boosting union membership.
This problem is not limited to labor unions. The rise of the netroots was organized around building national financial and grassroots support for Democratic candidates, and activists joined labor in refocusing resources on elections rather than issue-based pressure campaigns.
But labor is the big spender on the left, and as 2012 approaches, are unions really going to pour another $200 million into Obama’s campaign? And millions more into Senate Democrats, not one of whom (Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who did speak out, is not a Democrat) spoke out strongly and tried to organize actions against the debt deal?
Labor made the right decision to pour massive resources into electing Democrats in the 2008 elections. But this strategy failed. Now unions must redirect resources to ongoing organizing, and make it clear to Obama’s campaign that it should look to the “independents” whose support it so desperately seeks, rather than the union members whose agenda it scorns, for money and volunteers in 2012.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. This article was first published in BeyondChron on 4 August 2011; it is republished here with the author’s permission.
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