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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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