Labor is an integral part of the progressive coalition, one of the only forces capable of acting as a counterweight to the organized money that's taken over our politics.
Picture thousands of people streaming across the Brooklyn Bridge, with UAW, 1199 SEIU, and Teamsters' "Stop the War on Workers" signs held aloft, as projections on the side of the Verizon building declared, "We Are the 99%!"
Or think about thousands more thronging into the Wisconsin Capitol, singing "Which Side are You On?" as teachers and students held hands and firefighters marched in with bagpipes, all to fight Governor Scott Walker's attack on public workers' unions.
Recall a parade through Columbus, Ohio, workers and their allies dancing in the streets as they delivered 1.3 million petition signatures to the Secretary of State on their way to overturning Governor John Kasich's anti-union bill.
Those are just a few recent images of struggle that organized labor has given America in the past year. Images of working people banding together, union members side by side with workers who don't enjoy union protections, with their families and friends. For me, the indelible moment was October 14, at 5 AM in Zuccotti Park, when thousands of union members showed up -- transit workers and teachers and construction laborers – to defend a few hundred kids who'd occupied a park and brought the idea of economic inequality back to the lips of a nation.
You'd think people would have learned the lesson in 2011: labor is an integral part of the progressive coalition, one of the only forces capable of acting as a counterweight to the organized money that's taken over our politics.
Yet as election season wears on, many politicians and reporters seem to have forgotten. From Wisconsin, where the former mayor of Madison claimed that candidates shouldn't be "beholden to big unions," to the Web, where debates over union endorsements seem to focus only on how much money labor will spend to support its chosen candidates.
The Huffington Post, for instance, recently wrote of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, "facing an avalanche of negative advertisements, labor's most outspoken and visible champion in the Senate has, so far, been left to fend for himself," and granted anonymity to a "top Democratic operative with ties to labor" to complain that unions haven't done enough.
But Democrats and progressives who see labor as just another special interest to be tapped for funds during election season and then negotiated with (or more often, forgotten about) when it comes time to govern have forgotten those vital images from last year—or the last century. They've forgotten that unions represent millions of working Americans, struggling under the weight of austerity policies and a stagnant economy, who are getting increasingly fed up with their treatment by politicians.
"The labor movement has always given money to candidates," Damon Silvers, policy director and general counsel at the AFL-CIO, told AlterNet. But when it comes down to winning elections, their greatest contribution is boots on the ground. "And not just any boots, but people who are plugged into their communities, who are trusted. They're the backbone of America's civic culture, the people who are the poll watchers, the people who volunteer at food banks, local leaders in unions, the shop stewards, the people who pound the pavement. They are the core of civil society in the United States."
"Most people's idea of a union is what we do politically. Let's face it, politics is now a 365-day-a-year sport, so that tends to get most of the focus. It's not sexy to talk about somebody's 4 percent raise or somebody who just got health care for the first time," Jason Perlman of the Ohio AFL-CIO told AlterNet.
Most of those little victories -- those 4 percent raises and new contracts with health care benefits -- are won day by day, inch by inch, in grinding organizing campaigns and lengthy negotiations with management. They don't make headlines the way a multimillion-dollar ad buy does. As Perlman pointed out, unions are workers' organizations that do politics, not political organizations. But with only 11.8 percent of Americans represented by a union, the political action unions do has become the public face of labor.
"Modern unions developed in response to unchecked corporate control over both the political system and working-class lives after the Civil War," Erik Loomis, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island, explained. "The inability of workers to have a voice in their working conditions was tied to the fact that they had essentially no voice in influencing legislation that would help them either. Unions became one of the only organizations that working-class people could use to stand up for themselves in the workplace and at the polls."
During the New Deal era, when the labor movement was the voice for millions of desperate people suffering the ravages of the Great Depression, the Democratic Party recognized the power of those organized working-class voters pushing for policies that would help them. Remember President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's ringing declaration:
"We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred."
Roosevelt knew that working people responded to such language—and while they didn't have money to pour into campaign donations, they would vote if they were given something to believe in.
Jacob Remes, assistant professor of public affairs and history at SUNY Empire State College, pointed out that the shift to political engagement and the rise of the union PAC came from the CIO; the AFL had largely written off electoral politics. "This made them powerful within the Democratic Party, but of course it also made them, politically, an adjunct to the Democratic Party," Remes explained. "It also elevated the power of union leaders, who could do things like go to the White House and negotiate over legislation, but only if they 'delivered' their members."
"Unions provided the backbone for Democratic politics for more than a half-century not because they gave a ton of money to campaigns, but because they could get working-class people to the polls," Loomis said.
Back in those days, the labor movement not only represented more of America's workers— union membership peaked at over 25 percent in 1956—but also was spread throughout the country, with power in places like Texas as well as modern-day union strongholds like New York. Business might have had the edge in money, but with enough organized people, progressive politicians and progressive policies had a fighting chance.
Of course, in the 1930s, or the 1950s or even the '70s, there was far, far less money being spent in either direction to influence the course of elections. That all changed in recent years, and then, of course, the Citizens United decision helped open the floodgates.
The Citizens United Era
Right-wingers (and even some Democrats) like to equate unions with the corporations freed from legal restraints to spend unlimited money to influence elections by the Supreme Court in 2010. In practice, of course, that's completely ridiculous.
The regular political spending by labor unions is money contributed voluntarily by members—despite the claims of the right, no union member can be forced into donating to union political activism. "Unions don't spend money, union members spend money. In our PAC that's voluntary money from our members," Perlman noted.
This election cycle, of course, we're facing action by lots of groups called super PACs, that don't have to disclose their donors. Timothy Noah at The New Republic recently examined who was actually behind the biggest super PACs and found—surprise surprise—just a few billionaires at the heart of all that money.
"CNN's Charles Riley calculates that for 2011–2012 the 100 biggest individual donors to super PACs make up only 3.7 percent of the contributors but supply more than 80 percent of the cash," Noah noted.
Even as the AFL-CIO launches its own super PAC, Worker's Voice, the difference is obvious. Eliza Newlin Carney at Roll Call reported that the AFL-CIO's PAC has raised some $5.4 million and will report $4.1 million cash on hand when it has to file first-quarter disclosure reports. Compare that to the $76.8 million raised by Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS—which got 87 percent of its cash from just 24 donations from ultra-rich donors who gave over $1 million apiece. American Crossroads, the super PAC arm of Crossroads GPS, has already spent $29 million since its founding in 2010.
Oh yes—and the AFL-CIO represents some 12 million or so working people, from teachers to postal workers, firefighters to steelworkers, nurses to screenwriters.
"As imperfect as they are, labor unions are organized on the basis of one person one vote, not one dollar one vote. Their purpose is, they exist to be democratic institutions that give voice to ordinary people," Silvers noted. "If you think that the government ought to be about one person one vote, labor unions shouldn't bother you, because they run on that basis, and they collect money from their members on that basis. Everybody pays the same."
The super PAC, of course, allows the labor federation to reach out beyond its membership and accept donations from workers who may not have union representation. That won't make up the difference in money, but it does help to explain why the AFL-CIO, which issued a strong statement against Citizens United this spring and calling for public financing of campaigns, as well as "common-sense restrictions" on campaign spending by the ultra-rich and corporations--"including their contributions to organizations engaged in electoral activity," got into the super PAC business.
"The super PAC is a manifestation of President Trumka's view that the AFL has to be in the fight for all working Americans," Silvers said. And Perlman pointed out, "If I play a sport and they make a rule change I don't like, if I want to win I still have to play by the rules. When [football] went from leather helmets to regular helmets and changed how you could hit, nobody wore leather helmets anymore because you'd get killed."
Even with the super PAC, organized labor's monetary contribution to the election is going to look small compared to big business. AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer told Roll Call, "We were outspent 20-to-1 last time. We will probably be outspent 20-to-1 this time. But we are going to out-organize them by more than 20-to-1."
Noah pointed out that organizing is basically the only thing super PACs cannot do, because that would require coordination with actual candidates and campaigns that they're legally forbidden to do. But that's not the style of these rich billionaires in any case. "It's too social, and you can't be much of a crank if you have to listen to other people," Noah wrote.
Not so, of course, for labor. The labor movement is built upon grassroots organizing. Organizing workers takes conversations, face-to-face, personal connections, and solidarity. That's why the most important contribution from labor even in today's big-money era is going to be, as Perlman said, "actually talking to people, explaining the issues in a real way, not in a 30-second ad way."
The Sleeping Giant
The uprising in Wisconsin, John Nichols pointed out, contained lessons not just for right-wing politicians who'd figured unions for an easy target. It also taught union leaders that when they actually stand up for their rights and the rights of all working people, they have tremendous popular support. It's become a cliché to cite the pizza shop taking donations from protesters all around the country (and the world—the donation from Egypt has become a symbol of international solidarity), yet it's a fact—workers around the world understood that the public workers' fight in Madison was their fight.
At the height of the battle to overturn Kasich's anti-worker law in Ohio, Perlman said, "It was amazing, you'd walk into a restaurant with a button on and have a conversation with a waiter about collective bargaining. At the end of the day it showed that people value the work of other people."
So why does it seem, a year later, like many have forgotten that lesson? "Treating unions like another special interest is a recipe for long-term electoral disaster for Democrats because it marginalizes the very people who they need to get out the votes of people with less power and thus less-inclined to vote," Loomis noted. "I think it shows how unmoored Democratic politicians are from their base.
They think the way to win elections is to be Republican-lite, even in the bluest of states and districts."
Yet union members, because of that money and work that unions put into education, tend to vote in line with their economic interests—much more so than the rest of the vaunted white working class that the media loves to obsess about come election time. As AlterNet's Joshua Holland pointed out in his book, The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America, white male union members supported Obama by about 18 percentage points, while overall white men voted McCain by 16 points.
Perhaps the lesson that really needs to be re-taught is the lesson of 2010, the election that brought in Scott Walker and John Kasich as well as many other anti-worker politicians nationwide. Labor, having played a central role in electing Barack Obama in 2008, expected some pro-worker policies from a Democrat who'd said on the campaign trail that he'd walk the picket line with workers denied their right to organize and collectively bargain. Instead, the Employee Free Choice Act—a bill that would've made it easier for workers to organize by requiring employers to recognize majority sign-up, or "card check", avoiding lengthy NLRB elections—fell by the wayside even with a Democratic supermajority, and unemployment remained high. And Democrats lost in 2010.
Silvers said of Democrats, "They see the labor movement as a piggy bank and not as a social institution, not as the name we give to all these real people. When these real people are inspired they can work wonders. And when they're not, and they're feeling disillusioned and betrayed it's very difficult to motivate them."
He pointed out that in 2010, it was nearly impossible to get volunteers to work for Democrats. "The labor movement's 2010 political program was essentially money and paid staff. In 2008, when people believed in the agenda that was being put forth, we didn't have enough work for the people who showed up to help. Didn't have enough clipboards, didn't have enough phones, we were overwhelmed with enthusiasm."
"People care about issues, not about parties," Perlman said. That's been made very clear by the contrasting fights in Ohio and Wisconsin: because Ohio law allowed for the repeal of the anti-union law directly, Ohio workers had a more straightforward fight, while Wisconsin is now looking at a primary battle among Democrats before they can recall Scott Walker—and not all of those Dems are even promising to overturn Walker's attack on collective bargaining.
The question for 2012 for unions, likely to be so far outgunned on the cash front, is becoming: which candidates are worth their finite financial resources? "Our membership are not Democrats, our membership is everybody," Perlman pointed out. "We have to demand from those we support that they support us. It may take time. It may take a high profile candidate to not get the endorsement from one of the unions, all of the unions, that they thought they'd get."
But really, the most important question shouldn't be whether labor will spend a lot of money on TV ads. The question instead, for smart political watchers, will be whether the volunteers, who do the grunt work of campaigning, the door-knocking and phone-banking and stamp-licking, will show up. In Perlman's home state of Ohio, while Obama and Romney are both likely to have trouble whipping up much enthusiasm, there's at least one politician he thinks won't have too much trouble on that front.
"There are Democrats, independents, Republicans who will fight like hell for Sherrod Brown. They're not going to buy a TV ad for him, but they're going to be talking to somebody. That wins elections too. It was the real conversation on the ground that they just couldn't overcome with the 30-second advertising [that overturned SB5]. What we're best at is a ground war and that's what usually ends up winning at the end of the day."