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The Recall Aftermath

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A lot of coverage of Wisconsin, as one would expect. A few notes on this.

First, David Gergen, anti-union hack.

Ezra Klein’s response was a bit frustrating. He discusses labor’s failure entirely in terms of a post-Citizens United world. Now to be fair, it was labor who agreed to turn the Madison movement into a recall, which I think was a bad idea. However, Klein doesn’t really seem able to conceptualize labor’s role in society outside of the electoral structure, which is a problem he’s long had.

Moreover, his closing paragraph is deeply problematic:

Republicans have had great success arguing that organized labor has too much political power. So much success, in fact, that it seems clear that labor will soon have too little. But last night showed that Democrats aren’t going to get very far simply disputing Republican claims on this point. Rather, they should argue that all interest groups have too much political power, and unite behind legislation that would weaken them.

So for Ezra, unions are an interest group with too much political power (or at least they did until the last few years)? Democrats should distance themselves from labor in order to make an argument that would weaken all forms of “interest groups?” First, does anyone think this would possibly work? What is the Democratic base for this kind of legislation if not supported by labor? Second, again, I think Klein doesn’t quite get what labor does and why it matters outside of the electoral calculus.

This also reflects debates within the labor movement around the relationship between organized labor and electoral politics; certainly the leadership sees the need to turn every issue toward the next election. There’s a decent argument to be made for that, but it hasn’t been all that successful (certainly not last night) and it has frequently come at the cost of organizing efforts and rank and file activism within the union.

A much more valuable piece comes from Eidelson, who places the Wisconsin labor uprising in the larger context of the future of the movement outside of strictly electoral concerns.

But even as Wisconsin highlights labor’s vulnerability, it shows how dynamic a true labor movement can become. The recall effort itself offers one measure of what labor and its allies accomplished: triggering the third such election in U.S. history, fighting Walker to a close race despite marked asymmetry in cash (and national party support), and seizing control of the state Senate. While Walker’s survival will embolden other anti-union politicians, they’d be far bolder already if labor had just rolled over as rights were stripped away last year.

But the uprising in Wisconsin has accomplished far more than instigating an election. It’s pushed state senators to meet a higher bar: fleeing the state to slow the bill. It’s muscled class and labor back into our culture and media. It’s forged a new wave of activists, and it’s moved working people all over the place.

And then there’s this, which I think is really important:

Soon after Scott Walker declared victory, South Central Federation of Labor President Kevin Gundlach told me that the tasks now facing Wisconsin’s labor movement would have been necessary even if Walker lost: “We would have to rebuild our unions. We would have to do a lot of community outreach and coalition building…We have to embolden our workers” and take on “workplace actions that could lead to other forms of power.

There was a WSJ story out a few days ago about AFSCME membership numbers being decimated in the last year because the union struggled to get people to agree to pay dues. Unions have not done a very good job of creating an active, motivated membership. Part of the reason for that is the emphasis from the top on electoral politics rather than democratic unionism. For too long, it was totally fine for unions to have their members just pay their dues and forget about it. The structure of bureaucratic, business unionism that enacted change in Washington and the state capitols dominated American labor since at least 1947. It was effective for awhile but has not been for a long time. And that’s a huge part of the crisis of American unionism.

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  • cpinva

    i read mr. klein’s column, and realized at once that he’s been under that rock for a long, long time. those poor corporations, no money or political power there. no sir, they just constantly get beaten up by those thuggish unions.

    excuse me, are we occupying the same universe?

    • Scott Lemieux

      This is a very tendentious misreading of Klein’s point. He’s not saying that unions had too much power; he’s saying their declining power makes progressive politics more difficult. Because he’s fatalistic about this, he believes the only option is to restrict unlimited campaign finance legislation, because the status quo greatly favors corporate interests.

      This isn’t to say he’s right — I think he’s wrong to imply that campaign finance restrictions are an adequate substitute. But he’s not making the anti-labor argument that Erik attributes to him.

      • It’s not as if Ezra’s past hasn’t shown a ton of questionable positions on labor that makes my point senseless.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Cites?

          • Working on it.

            I don’t think you can assume the disdain for which he is held by labor writers is without merit.

            • Scott Lemieux

              Well, I have many times had people tell me om this blog that Ezra was a neoliberal opponent of labor or whatever and nobody ever backs it up. Among other things, people seem to have trouble telling Ygelsias and Klein apart.

              • mark f

                And anyway Yglesias writes from a pro-labor position — albeit with blind spots when it comes to teachers — more frequently than a lot of the liberal blogs ever did before Wisconsin. Nathan Newman writing an occasional post at TPM used to be pretty much the extent of it at high-traffic sites.

                • Barry Freed

                  Newman was great. Whatever happened to him?

              • david mizner

                Here’s Ezra 2 years ago touting the importance of labor. Now, because of single loss, he’s saying labor’s dead? It’s fucking insane; there’s no alternative to the labor movement. It can take different forms and (should) rely on fresh blood and draw from new industries, but there’s no alternative to working people organzing.

                Democrats need a strong labor movement, yes, but so too do American workers. Without Labor, workers have no organized lobby advocating (however imperfectly) for their political interests and no countervailing force against the corporate sector. It’s not a total accident that the decline of Labor tracked stagnation in the median wage (nor, to be sure, is it a full explanation)

                The White House obviously can’t pick all its fights at once, but as of yet, it hasn’t picked any fights on Labor’s behalf, or even shown a bare interest in doing so in the future. Some probably take that as Obama being usefully dismissive of a special interest, but in the long-run, letting Labor continue to decline is bad politics for Democrats and bad policy for workers.

                Nope! Forget all that, cause Democrats (not labor) lost a long-shot recall election with a bad candidate while being outspent 10 to 1.

                http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/03/the_obama_administration_poor.html

                • Scott Lemieux

                  I agree with you 100% — his fatalism is the wrong approach. I was addressing a transparent misreading that claimed that Klein was saying that “union thugs have too much power.” That’s exactly what he’s not arguing.

                • But that is the upshot of Klein’s argument on what Democrats should do. The “special interests” that Democrats are supposed to run away from are considered to be unions by the general public.

                • Anonymous

                  If Klein’s fatalist approach is correct then it would be highly strategic for Democrats to pivot from anti-labor sentiment to a general anti-interest group stance because it would weaken Republicans far more than Democrats (pushing for tougher campaign finance regs by co-opting anti-union discourse, for example).

                  Now, you may think Klein’s wrong to be fatalistic about labor and labor is ultimately necessary for the Left to succeed in America. But if his premise is correct his strategy makes a lot of sense.

      • Richard

        Correct. He is NOT, repeat NOT, saying that unions have too much power. He says that Republicans have scored points arguing that unions have too much power but he doesn’t say he agrees with that.

        You might disagree with his conclusion about what needs to be done but dont attribute to him a view he doesn’t espouse

        • Linnaeus

          It’s fair to point out that Ezra Klein isn’t anti-union. But it is a little frustrating to see him adopt a fatalistic attitude about labor, and I don’t think his remedies are remotely adequate, if they were even to be enacted, which is not a sure thing by any means.

          Functionally, is there a difference between someone who is forthrightly anti-union and someone who supports them in principle, but thinks they’re on their way out?

          • Right–Klein is certainly not anti-union. He just doesn’t really get what unions are about and tends to be dismissive of them, in this case suggesting the Democrats give up on them and go for this “no special interest” strategy.

            • Barry

              “Right–Klein is certainly not anti-union. He just doesn’t really get what unions are about and tends to be dismissive of them, in this case suggesting the Democrats give up on them and go for this “no special interest” strategy.”

              IOW, an over-educated under-experienced grad of an elite institution who works in a neoliberal/neocon paper, who juuuuuuussst happens to be dismissive of core liberal institutions, and naively accepting of right-wing institutions. By coincidence.

              • Klein did not graduate from an elite institution. A first-rate public school, yes.

                • Incontinentia Buttocks

                  How are we defining elite institutions these days?

                • elm

                  Is UCLA really an “elite institution,” IB? Personally, I think only two publics can be considered elite–Michigan and Berkeley–but that’s only from an education perspective. I took Barry’s assertion to be one of class not educational prestige and UCLA (nor Michigan or Berkeley) are the bastions of elite privelege like, say, Harvard is.

                  I think this is another case of what Scott identified above: people confusing Yglesias and Klein.

          • mark f

            Functionally, is there a difference between someone who is forthrightly anti-union and someone who supports them in principle, but thinks they’re on their way out?

            Uh, doesn’t that depend on what “function” that “someone” performs? Like governor vs. pundit, for example?

            • Linnaeus

              Sure. My question carried with it a “all other things being equal” assumption with it.

      • david mizner

        Scott, did you see a different Ezra post — “The Kenyensian case for Romney”? Seems like something you’d be all over.

        http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/the-keynesian-case-for-romney/2012/06/04/gJQAIETuDV_blog.html

        • Scott Lemieux

          Well, the argument is narrowly correct — Republicans will stop being deficit hawks if Romney wins and there will be some (inefficient and inegalitarian) stimulus that probably won’t happen under divided government. Now, if this is an argument for wanting Romney to win that would be insane; he doesn’t say that, although I would certainly like to see him disown that more explicitly.

          • rea

            Republicans will stop being deficit hawks if Romney wins

            You are ascribing to the republicans a greater degree of sanity than they seem to possess.

            • Scott Lemieux

              Only if you ignore the entire history of contemporary Republican conservatism. Ryan was always a supporter of running up deficits under Bush and under Romney he would be again.

              • Anonymous

                What good does it do anyone if they stop being budget hawks and spend all the money on stupid things? That there will be some miniscule trickle-down come out of it?

                Might as well not have stimulus if it is the wrong kind.

              • Barry

                In that piece of rather bad work, my previous comment applies about Ezra: “an over-educated under-experienced grad of an elite institution who works in a neoliberal/neocon paper, who juuuuuuussst happens to be dismissive of core liberal institutions, and naively accepting of right-wing institutions. By coincidence.”

                What’s worse is that Ezra pointedly ignores the history that he’s just lived through. Given a Romney victory, the GOP would cut taxes on the rich by staggering amounts, spend on the rich and connected by staggering amounts, cut spending on anybody not connected by staggering amounts, appoint the most vicious right-wing judges in staggering numbers, pass staggeringly bad laws in staggering numbers, destroy the system to a staggering extent, and when they finally lost (some) power, obstruct any attempts to fix things to a staggeringly evil degree.

                Like they just did, with Ezra allegedly watching

                At this point, Ezra is clearly a media wh*re well along in training.

      • djw

        The particulars of Klein’s fatalism is puzzling. I’m not exactly brimming with optimism about the future of the labor movement, but in a post-Citizen’s United world, it’s a hell of a lot easier to imagine a possible future with a somewhat revitalized labor movement than a world in which CFR that’s serious enough to actually matter is possible.

        • djw

          (And this “what we really need is a politics without “special interests” stuff” is the kind of naivete I expect from high school civics students…)

          • Scott Lemieux

            To be clear, he’s not saying that we need politics without special interests; he’s saying that Democrats should strategically make a “special interests have too much power argument” to defend campaign finance restrictions that would reign in corporate power (just as Republicans run against “special interests” despite being beholden to them.) I don’t agree with this, or at least don’t agree that it’s adequate, for reasons I discuss in a new post, but it’s a different error than Klein is being accused of.

            • James E Powell

              But he is making the argument in a world where large concentrations of wealth and power are not regarded as ‘special interests.’ The reason is that those same concentrations of wealth and power do not allow themselves to be referred to as such (outside of academic and isolated political chat circles). So when the ordinary, average American voter hears ‘special interests,’ she hears ‘unions, minorities, feminists,environmentalists,’ and other groups that have little or no political power.

  • Fuck Ezra Klein. Fuck yeah Joseh Eidelson.

  • Erikm your final paragraph was spot on. Its not that unions should be politically inactive, but they ought to be more concerned with engaging their members.

    Take SAG/AFTRA. They are about as politically motivated as you can get, but the reason they remain a strong and vital union is their efforts to make sure their members get fair wages for work. They’ve made many inroads into the cyberworld and video games, and many of those companies are now union firms, at least with respect to the work they do with actors.

  • Scott Lemieux

    I don’t understand how you can separate electoral politics from effective labor organizing. Union density in Wisconsin is about to be significantly reduced because of electoral politics. There’s no strategy that is going to make up from the denial of collective bargaining rights.

    • That’s the chicken-or-egg question, I think.

      If you’re addressing my comment, it’s not that I think unions should disengage. But the perception out there is not that “Unions do things for people,” but “Unions are political hacks.”

      Well, the way to counteract that is to go out and do things for your members as your primary goal.

      There are many– most– unions that do this, and their time is mostly spent ensuring they don’t lose ground for their members, unless its absolutely necessary. Enough unions have made enough political noise, however, to make this seem much more rare than it is

    • Richard

      And, of course, SAG and AFTRA are in a state where the Dems control the state assembly and legislator and there is no movement afoot to curtail union rights.

      And the problem in Wisconsin is not that the public sector unions didn’t engage their members. As shown by the demonstrations of last year, they did a good job of that. The problem is that they haven’t done a good job, as demonstrated by Walker’s election and now the defeat of the recall, of engaging the general electorate.

      • “And the problem in Wisconsin is not that the public sector unions didn’t engage their members. As shown by the demonstrations of last year, they did a good job of that. The problem is that they haven’t done a good job, as demonstrated by Walker’s election and now the defeat of the recall, of engaging the general electorate.”

        Then why have AFSCME membership numbers collapsed?

        • Richard

          Not informed enough to answer that. It may be that the number of state employees declined because of Walker’s decisions since there is only so much the unions could do with a Republican governor and a Republican legislature. Given the Walker/Republican victory, there was no way the union was going to win pay raise, better work rules, job protection, etc. They were doing everything they could do trying to keep the right to organize. And it may also be the case that there is a conservative, dont rock the boat contingent among union members that didn’t like the union’s vocal opposition to Walker. But the response of the public sector union members last year to the Walker initiative was impressive.

          • It’s a very clear answer. The membership was not convinced that it was worth their time and AFSCME wasn’t prepared to engage those thousands of people. The unions did do a good job of motivating a lot of people to protest, but that wasn’t always their own membership. The response of progressives in Wisconsin was impressive and public sector unions was part of that, but that is not the same thing as having a really engaged membership up and down the line.

            • Hovde

              One cause of the membership decline is that the union stripping law included elements from Right To (Be Maximally Exploited At) Work laws, including an abolition of “fair share” payments to unions from non-members for (whatever remaining) services the unions provided. This provision was held invalid by a federal district court in March, but I assume it remains in place while the case is on appeal.

              http://www.jsonline.com/news/wisconsin/federal-court-strikes-down-parts-of-act-10-4k4qdap-145208985.html

              Had the unions not launched the state senate recall effort, the Rs might well have been emboldened to move on to phase 2 of the operation, namely going after the private sector unions with a Right To (Be Maximally Exploited At) Work law. Now that the Ds have regained control of the state senate, that’s off the table for the moment.

        • Errrrrrrrrr, cuz their jobs/benefits were cut? And what’s the point in being in a union if you can’t collectively bargain anymore?

          • This is unlikely on a large scale. Probably a huge number of those people had never been to a union meeting in their life. Many of them may have voted for Walker. I think you’re underestimating the lack of day-to-day engagement that most unions struggle with.

            • You’re kind of proving my point. If people are not engaged (and I agree, they are not) and the union stops being something they can count on, they’ll leave.

              • Sure. And unions haven’t done a very good job of telling those workers why they should be members.

        • One of the Blue

          If you’ve got 10,000 members and you get 2,000 of them to a rally, it looks pretty impressive and to many people like everybody’s there. But then there’s 3,000 – 4,000 disgruntleds, members who are in it for what can the union do for me, members who just do not understand, and who aren’t at the rally. That I expect is where the membership dropoff is coming from.

        • Barry

          Uh, lessee – massive cuts in government employees, and many laws passed to deliberately weaken unions, with lavish blasts of propaganda.

          Or were you actually serious?

      • SAG/AFTRA are in all 50, actually.

        • Richard

          Yes, but the overwhelming majority of their membership (probably 90%) is California and NY, states where there is no movement to prevent the right to organize, institute right to work laws, etc. SAG and AFTRA do a good job of obtaining benefits for their members but tell me how AFSCME could have obtained member benefits after Walker and the Republicans won control of the state house in Wisconsin?

    • Scott,

      You are right, but not totally right. The core of a successful labor movement is not political organizing. Political organizing needs to rise from a motivated, powerful union. Without that, it is extremely difficult to convince members to fight when they are being attacked. Which is what we are seeing with the huge decline in AFSCME membership. There’s no question that the unions themselves deserve a huge amount of blame for this.

      The electoral calculus is part of what a labor union has to do. But it’s not the fundamental thing.

      • Scott Lemieux

        But this cuts both ways. Without statutory protections effective union organizing is extraordinarily difficult.

        • Yes, that’s true. But, as unions have done for six decades, to prioritize the political strategy over organizing means that when the one doesn’t work anymore, it’s really hard to activate the second.

          • Linnaeus

            You might be interested in Doug Henwood’s take on this.

  • David Kaib

    From the Eidelson piece:

    Since teacher-bashing became a hot trend in “education reform,” mainstream Democrats boast about defying teachers’ unions, while reassuring them that unlike the GOP, they want them to keep existing. (When I asked Democratic Governors Association Chair Martin O’Malley, who was in Madison campaigning for Barrett, about his fellow Democratic Governor Dan Malloy’s proposal to curtail teachers bargaining rights, O’Malley said he wasn’t familiar with “the nuances of collective bargaining” in Connecticut, but that unlike Walker, Democrats “don’t wade into this with our primary goal being to crush the teacher’s union.”)

    I’d say this is a pretty serious problem, and it’s not unique to less blue states – CT and MD don’t fit that bill.

  • Linnaeus

    David Frum argues that Democrats will be radicalized by the recall defeat. I’m not so sure.

    • I too am skeptical.

    • Okay, maybe they will be radicalized. What will they do then? Vote for a president who believes in militarism, corporatism, and neoliberalism, then wonder why nothing gets any better.

      • dave3544

        You know, in a thread about the recall election in Wisconsin, it may occur to you that presidential politics are not the end all, be all of electoral politics.

  • Barry Freed

    I smell high Broderism.

  • TT

    Some of the reporting I’ve read emphasized conservatives’ success at cleaving private sector workers (union and non-union) from unionized civil servants, primarily through the politics of economic and cultural resentment. It’s a neat trick, getting workers to train their fire on those fat and lazy (and probably black, too!) bureaucrats who live like kings on your dime, instead of on the real culprit, a rapacious conservative economic vision that has brought so much harm to wages, living standards, the environment, and so on over the past 30-plus years.

    It seems to me that the main and most immediate challenge of a “democratic unionism” would be grass roots outreach and rapprochement between civil servants and private sector workers, so that when the latter looks at the supposedly lavish wages and benefits enjoyed by the former (the wages and benefits that lie at the root of our current economic ruin, or so Koch, Rove, Walker, & Co. would have them believe) they start talking about how to get those for themselves, instead of doing conservative’s dirty work by demanding they be taken away.

    • Linnaeus

      It seems to me that the main and most immediate challenge of a “democratic unionism” would be grass roots outreach and rapprochement between civil servants and private sector workers, so that when the latter looks at the supposedly lavish wages and benefits enjoyed by the former (the wages and benefits that lie at the root of our current economic ruin, or so Koch, Rove, Walker, & Co. would have them believe) they start talking about how to get those for themselves, instead of doing conservative’s dirty work by demanding they be taken away.

      Agreed. If we argue that there are some generalized lessons to be learned from the recall for labor, I think coming up with a plan for better communication and better engagement has to be one. There’s going to need to be a lot more “under the radar” work to be done.

      My union local just bargained and approved a good contract for the next three years, a considerable improvement over the previous two contacts, which were one-year deals only and pretty much held the line (along with some modest improvements). Our leadership knew this would be a long haul and stayed consistently engaged with the membership and even regularly engaged those who dissented from the leadership. I think that’s a big reason why our local remains pretty strong. I’m not sure if you could scale up that kind of engagement in larger unions, but there should be some talk about how to do so.

  • The Pale Scot

    ““We would have to rebuild our unions. We would have to do a lot of community outreach and coalition building…We have to embolden our workers””

    I may be mistaken about the law which I believe prevents this, but it seems to the place to start would be not giving contract terms to those who refuse to join the union. Let them negotiate their own contract with Consolidated International Corp LTD. And treat them like the scabs they are. A little why is the union guy getting better than me? up close and personal.

  • Barry Freed
    • Scott Lemieux

      I’m not sure why you see this argument as valuable:

      Suppose instead that the unions had supported a popular campaign—media, door knocking, phone calling—to agitate, educate, and organize on the importance of the labor movement to the maintenance of living standards? If they’d made an argument, broadly and repeatedly, that Walker’s agenda was an attack on the wages and benefits of the majority of the population? That it was designed to remove organized opposition to the power of right-wing money in politics? That would have been more fruitful than this major defeat.

      I’m actually not conceding that unions didn’t do this stuff, and it’s bizarre to see activism and electoral politics as a zero-sum game, but even assuming that it’s true…what would have happened is that public sector unions would still have no collective bargaining rights. Also, it seems to me that the Tea Party channeling their rage into electoral politics in Wisconsin seemed to, you know, work extremely well.

      Henwood’s fatalism isn’t any better than Klein’s. Obviously, if you assume that you’ll always lose then entering electoral politics is a bad idea. But that’s a foolish assumption, and Wisconsin sure as hell isn’t an example of electoral politics not mattering.

      • Barry Freed

        I confess to not being at all clear on what you think should have been done. Maybe not picked this fight at all?

        • Scott Lemieux

          Perhaps the recall was a bad idea. But to infer from is a lesson that labor should get out of electoral politics is bizarre.

          • Barry

            It’s the tactic of ‘centrists’, who really want Dems/the left/liberals/unions to lose. It’s a recurring pattern, of concern trolling about actually fighting back (‘we might make them angry!’), taking each victory as a golden opportunity to surrender, and each defeat as a golden opportunity to surrender.

          • Bill Murray

            focusing on building the cause of unions does not preclude being involved in electoral politics, but instead is meant to alter priorities

        • mark f

          It seems to me it couldn’t been picked differently. This number from Chuck Todd has been cited so often today that I don’t feel the need to find a link: 60% of exit poll respondants were against a recall not triggered by a legal scandal. I saw somewhere else that something 18% of Walker supporters said they’re voting for Obama. If you time the recall to coincide with the November election maybe you gloss over what it is and pick up some of the principled opposition. Maybe you avoid the race being framed as unions vs. the budget surplus.

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