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Labor Should Demand Political Value for Money

[ 44 ] June 4, 2013 |

Two stories here that revolve around the theme of organized labor rarely getting value for the money it donates to Democratic politicians.

On the national level, Communication Workers of American president Larry Cohen held a conference call with reporters and bloggers yesterday to say that Senate Democrats who do not support institutional changes within the Senate that would allow presidential nominees to get an up or down vote will lose CWA support. Without a functioning National Labor Relations Board, Democratic judges on federal courts, and other key agencies not being staffed due to Republican obstructionism, this is a huge issue for CWA and other unions.

The question I have is what losing support means? Does it mean not getting union money? None of the union’s tremendous GOTV efforts? Funding primary challengers? None of this is at all clear. But it’s clear that CWA does not believe it is getting its money’s worth for supporting Democrats regardless of what they do or do not do for labor.

Let’s look at the recent South Carolina special election to replace Tim Scott. Elizabeth Colbert-Busch received $32,500 from organized labor, including $10,000 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Her payback?

Ashley Byrd, News Director for South Carolina Radio: We are going to stay on the topic of job creation. And, uh, let’s start with this: Boeing is bringing more than 8,000 jobs into South Carolina. So here is a two part question first to Ms. Colbert Busch: Did the NLRB overstep its bounds when it tried to block Boeing’s approach to expansion in South Carolina? Yes or No, and why?

Elizabeth Colbert Busch: Yes. This is a right-to-work state, and they had no business telling a company where they could locate.

If the first thought that ran through your mind was, “Sounds like a standard Republican answer to a question like that,” you would be right. But, of course, Elizabeth Colbert Busch was the Democratic nominee for Congress in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. In response to the Republican candidate, former Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC), stating that Colbert Busch “wants to be the voice for labor unions in Washington, DC”, she said the following:

First of all, um, Mark, what you’re saying is just not true. Things can be taken out of context, and everybody knows that. I am proud to support and live in a right-to-work state, and I am proud of everyone who has supported me.

Now of course it is South Carolina so what do you expect, right? Well, maybe. But why should labor should provide its valuable resources to politicians who do not support its fundamental positions? For 80 years, organized labor has thrown its hat in with the Democratic Party through thick and thin. This was a pretty good strategy for awhile, but today, everyone is questioning it, including at the very top of the AFL-CIO. Today (and increasingly since the 1970s) the Democratic Party just assumes labor is writing the checks and that it’s just an interest group to assuage but not take seriously.

The South Lawn has more here:

Labor also gave $68,000 in 2009-2010 to U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR). Yes, that would be the same Blanche Lincoln that played a large role in blocking the Employee Free Choice Act and who now works for Wal-Mart as a “special policy advisor” (read: lobbyist). You know, the same Wal-Mart notorious for its anti-union policies. It is not altogether surprising, though, given that Wal-Mart gave her $83,650 in donations over the course of her last term in the U.S. Senate.

Something is not adding up here.

Labor gave $1.1 billion in donations to candidates in federal elections between 2005 and 2011, and what do we have to show for it? No Employee Free Choice Act. President Obama’s nominee for Commerce Secretary heads a corporation that is being boycotted by labor for anti-union practices and horrible working conditions. The candidate who stated in 2008 that he would put on his walking shoes and join a picket line wherever collective bargaining rights were threatened seemed to forget where his local Foot Locker was when it came to worker oppression in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. But then again, that should not be surprising, given that the 2012 Democratic National Convention was held in a right-to-work state at non-union hotels.

I don’t necessarily agree with the article’s argument to use all those resources strictly in local politics. That needs to happen too, but ignoring the national scene would be counterproductive. Labor of course should and will stay involved in electoral politics. But the question is how it should operate. How can it receive value for its dollar? I think the answer is probably supporting individual candidates instead of the Democratic Party as a whole. It needs to act more like the Bloomberg anti-gun group, making politicians pay if they don’t support union issues. And while you are not going to hurt a South Carolina Democrat by running an ad saying they are anti-union, you are going to hurt them by not giving one red cent. For a Democratic Party strategist, this is not an idea you want to hear. But from the perspective of what is best for labor unions and pushing their causes in Washington, this is a sensible strategy.

Comments (44)

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  1. Bruce Vail says:

    It’s notable that organized labor withdrew its backing for Lincoln only after she had reneged on years of promises to support EFCA. That is to say, they never supported her BECAUSE she was soft on labor issues, and withdrew their support only after she crossed the Rubicon on EFCA.

    • Don’t forget the ruse she, and a few others, played when Dubya was President. Both Walmart twins voted for EFCA, once Democrats regained control of the House and Senate, when there was no chance Dubya would sign it into law.

  2. The better question is what has taken unions so long to figure this stuff out? In PA, a lot of unions used to support Snarlin’ Arlen Specter. When he was still a Puke. For what? I know the BS they peddled to the media, but who knows the real reasons. It’s a real crime that unions have supported Democrats, and watch union rights be rolled back, and unsupported, even by the Democrats they helped to elect.

  3. rea says:

    For 80 years, organized labor has thrown its hat in with the Democratic Party through thick and thin.

    Not really true. Labor played a big part in electing Nixon and Reagan. Vietnam, hippies, civil rights, culture war issues–on none of these was labor a reliable ally.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      This isn’t really true outside of 1972 and even there it is more complicated, with Meany not supporting McGovern but a lot of the internationals openly bucking him. The evidence just isn’t there for these common assertions. Like 4 out of 100 or so internationals supported Reagan in 1980. A few construction trade unions beat some hippies, but there were tons of hippies in other unions. Lots of unions supported civil rights, even if some didn’t.

      I feel like I’ve basically repeated these points over and over. Why can’t we get past these stereotypes about unions in the 60s and 70s?

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        You beat me to it, Erik.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        Well, we can’t get past some of these stereotypes because there is at least a germ of truth underlying the stereotypes.

        In These Times has a good article this month outlining the alliance between the AFL-CIO Building & Construction Trades and Petroleum Institute. They are together in backing the Keystone pipeline project and other big oil initiatives. The oil companies are getting more bang for the back by buying labor support and splintering the Democratic Party at the same time.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Well, unions are diverse. But as we talked about over Keystone, there are a good number of internationals who oppose the pipeline. Does a couple of unions being OK with their members beating hippies provide that “kernel of truth” that organized labor was bad on the counterculture and thus is not the friend of the left today? I don’t see it at all.

          • Bruce Vail says:

            I’m sorry, Erik, but you are quite wrong.

            Numerous unions were staunch supporters of Vietnam War (minus the punching part) and otherwise opposed to the policies of the counterculture wing of the Democratic Party at the time. The same is true today when it come to energy/oil policy. That doesn’t necessarily make them “enemies” of the left today, but it does create a rift that doesn’t get healed by pretending it doesn’t exist.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              And numerous unions opposed the Vietnam War and supported McGovern. Why you consistently deny the fact that there are several unions today that oppose Keystone, I do not know.

              • Bruce Vail says:

                Umm…I never denied that a handful of unions oppose Keystone. I simply don’t attach much importance to them because they are not actually devoting any resources to the fight, while the pro-Keystone unions are.

          • rea says:

            Does a couple of unions being OK with their members beating hippies provide that “kernel of truth” that organized labor was bad on the counterculture and thus is not the friend of the left today?

            No, but it does rather refute the notion that “For 80 years, organized labor has thrown its hat in with the Democratic Party through thick and thin.” And of course, as you elsewhere acknowlege, rather more was going on than a few instances of hippie bashing. In ’80, most organized labor was at most luke-warm in its support of Carter. A few unions like the Teamsters and PATCO(!) openly supported Regan. The membership turned out for Reagan regardless of the position taken by the leadership. And we know the rest of the story.

            The lesson that ought to be learned from this is that both the Democratic left an organized labor need to be better coalition partners.

            • Bruce Vail says:

              Yes, that is the lesson that we ought to have learned, but haven’t.

            • Bruce Vail says:

              re: ‘through thick and thin’

              There are other scattered examples. John L. Lewis, the predominant labor leader in the country at the time, defected to the Republicans in 1940. Some left unions deserted Harry Truman in 1948 to support Henry Wallace. The Teamsters, under Hoffa’s influence, refused to back Kennedy in 1960.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        Penny Lewis’s new book is sure to be interesting on these issues…tho’ as Andrew Hartman points out today over on the US Intellectual History Blog, Lewis seems to be disagreeing in important ways with Jefferson Cowie on the nature of ’70s working-class culture.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      These are two rather different cases.

      In 1968, labor was the backbone of the campaign that almost elected Humphrey. Then Nixon threw organized labor a few bones in his first term. That (plus not entirely rational) AFL-CIO hostility to McGovern, led the AFL-CIO to officially sit out the 1972 presidential election while effectively endorsing Nixon.

      In 1980, the AFL-CIO backed Carter, but the Teamsters (and a handful of smaller unions) split and supported Reagan.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        “…a few bones in the first term…”

        One of those bones was the Alaska North Slope oil development, which has funded many thousands of union jobs over the last 40 years. This really is a good example of why some unions would rather throw in with Conservatives-Big Oil than with Progressives-Environmentalists over Keystone. Big Oil is offering to put meat on the dinner table for unions: Environmentalists not so much.

        • Bruce Vail says:

          The Alaska development, by the way, is what gave us the not-so-pretty sight of Sarah and Todd Palin as good union members.

  4. Crosseyed says:

    I’m sure a lot of the reason labor has supported crap-o Dems is that it has been seemingly important to just get the majority. Sure, Senator X could be a jerk, but if he puts Democrats in charge of the Senate then maybe it’s worth it.

    I’ve personally been sympathetic to that argument in the past. I feel like I’m not so sympathetic to it these days.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I think it depends really. If we are talking a Senate election that really could give the Senate to Democrats, then that’s one thing. A special election for a super red South Carolina House seat? I don’t see the value here.

      • David Kaib says:

        Also not valuable : small increases in the Dem Senate majority that don’t get to a functioning majority. A numbers of unions put up a lot of $ for that in the closing weeks of the last election and it’s not clear what they got as a result.

    • Kurzleg says:

      Maybe, but only in the sense that GOP control would be worse for unions. It’s the difference between getting nothing versus getting anti-labor/union laws passed.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        So the question is whether one is thinking short-run or long-run. In the short-run, Democratic control of the Senate is the Lesser Evil, even if the Democrats give labor nothing. In the long-run, the only way to get a Democratic majority that will actually give labor something is if Democratic candidates have to support labor’s issues to get labor’s support. And that will only make a difference if it’s true for Democrats who might actually get to the Senate; races in states like SC are a side show even if the Democrat is pro-labor. But it’s an illusion to believe that repeatedly settling for lesser evilism is going to eventually produce a pro-labor Democratic majority. There are simply too many anti-labor parts of current Democratic coalition for this to happen.

      • JKTHs says:

        For the unions I don’t think Lesser-Evilism works that well. Either way, their membership and clout is heading in the same downward direction, it’s just a question of at what rate.

        • jameson quinn says:

          I don’t think lesser evilism works for anyone without a strong demographic wind at their back; basically, gays and Latinos. Goes without saying that it’s better than Naderism, but organized accountability a la Bloomberg’s gun thing is the only way to make substantial progress. So good for the unions; they already have the ‘organized’ so by adding ‘accountability’ they can show the way.

  5. Sebastian H says:

    This hits a point in one of your recent posts–something about the fact that some people don’t want to become union members because they are pro life. It should have raised the question about why unions have a political opinion about abortion at all. The reason they do, is because it matches the Democtic Party position. But why put off potential union members over abortion at all?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I don’t think they do (at least that I know), but there’s union leaders are likely left-liberals in most unions (maybe not some of the old-school craft unions) and have left positions on abortion, gay rights, etc. That’s almost 100% true for the staff, but fairly likely in the rank and file as well. There’s also the confluence of unions and the Democratic Party, which means the union supporting candidates that support abortion rights.

    • aimai says:

      Unions don’t have a position on abortion, they have a position on the health care benefits offered to their increasingly female workforce. Naturally they support the first amendment, privacy, and religious freedoms of their workforce over the interests of the bosses. That’s where abortion rights come into play, as do contraceptive care, health care generally, and religious freedom too. The mere fact that some troglodytes refuse to join collective bargaining units/unions because they are afraid that other people are going to access health care they have a religious objection to is not the fault of Unions, it is the result of years of fear mongering and busybodying by right wing hate merchants who have convinced ordinary workers that they have the right to interfere with the bodily autonomy of their co-workers.

    • Because solidarity is reciprocal – unions support women’s right to choose so that professional women with no connection to unions support unions.

      Also, there are women union members – so there’s no way that doesn’t lose you someone’s support.

  6. aimai says:

    I agree with Molly Ivin’s–You got to dance with the one that brung ya. And it goes the other way: don’t bring anyone to the dance who won’t be seen with you publicly. Love for liberal policies and unions is not the “love that dare not speak its name.” We need major political figures to fight these battles publicly. I know that E Colbert-Bush thought she had to get over on the South Carolina knee jerk voter anyway she could but that means she lost precious time our side needs, in front of the camera, not advocating seriously for our policies. She lost anyway and meanwhile she failed to advance the ball downfield, to mix my metaphors.

  7. Manta says:

    A workable politic would be to find some republican candidates that are willing to support unions’ goals and vote for them, but I am not sure if they exist.

    • Bruce Vail says:

      None that I can think of. There is knot of Republicans in Congress who will vote with the unions on Davis-Bacon, but on precious little else.

      The 2012 parade of Republican presidential candidates was especially notable for the virulence of their anti-union rhetoric. The most pro-union of the bunch was probably….Donald Trump!

      • Larry says:

        Yeah, I think all of the “pro-labor” Republicans are all but gone. The only one I can really think of is the guy from Staten Island (I think?) and I’m not even so sure about him.

        The labor-friendly Blue Dog is the new labor-friendly Republican. Rare, and quite useful when found for conservative areas.

  8. Andrae says:

    This is one situation where I don’t think “lesser evil” applies. A Dem candidate for congress who doesn’t support basic labour principles is a candidate telling the unions there isn’t enough ground support for a pro-union stance. In which case, as Erik has been telling us for years now, the correct response is to take the funding away from the lost cause at the top of the ticket, and redirect it to local organisation building. If you do that hopefully, in 10-15-20 years, you won’t need to ask the Dem senator to support labour, because they will know their preselection is dependent on supporting workers (‘jobs’ just being a euphemism for ‘job creators’).

  9. Oriscus says:

    Oh, hell, just read (or re-read, in which case you’re clearly just being disingenuous, so this time get it) Walter Karp’s “Indispensable Enemies” and “Liberty Under Seige”. The AFL-CIO always gets political value for money, just not necessarily for its claimed constituents or workers in general.

    No Emoprog here, just somebody tired as shit of being strung along.

  10. Eric, for the love of cupcakes, NO! I agree that Labor could have a much smarter political strategy, but this ain’t it:

    I don’t necessarily agree with the article’s argument to use all those resources strictly in local politics. That needs to happen too, but ignoring the national scene would be counterproductive. Labor of course should and will stay involved in electoral politics. But the question is how it should operate. How can it receive value for its dollar? I think the answer is probably supporting individual candidates instead of the Democratic Party as a whole. It needs to act more like the Bloomberg anti-gun group, making politicians pay if they don’t support union issues. And while you are not going to hurt a South Carolina Democrat by running an ad saying they are anti-union, you are going to hurt them by not giving one red cent. For a Democratic Party strategist, this is not an idea you want to hear. But from the perspective of what is best for labor unions and pushing their causes in Washington, this is a sensible strategy.

    Supporting individual candidates is exactly the bad political strategy you call out in South Carolina and Arkansas – the candidate takes your check and runs. How do you hold them accountable when primarying an incumbent is a huge crapshoot when it’s just you, and when they can point to a Republican who’ll be a thousand times worse.

    What it needs is to invest its money into the party infrastructure at the state and local level, so that it can better influence who gets the Democratic endorsement at the local, state legislative, and statewide level, because then you influence the entire pool of credible candidates for Congress and Senate, and then you can threaten electeds with the entire party infrastructure. This is exactly what the Tea Party gets that everyone on the left doesn’t get.

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