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A Tale of Two Headlines

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Life comes at you fast in New York politics: only a few days after my last post, Andrew Cuomo decided to pre-emptively retaliate against the Working Families Party for considering endorsing his opponent Cynthia Nixon:

Faced with defections from liberal supporters, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his labor allies are striking back, threatening to sabotage a progressive third party for potentially giving its ballot line to his Democratic rival, Cynthia Nixon.

Two powerful unions allied with Mr. Cuomo announced on Friday that they were withdrawing from the Working Families Party, a small but influential alliance of labor unions and progressive activists.

Other labor leaders aligned with the governor have threatened to create a competing new labor party of their own, as Mr. Cuomo has himself urged labor leaders to stop giving money to liberal community groups backing Ms. Nixon…

Among the labor leaders in attendance were leaders or representatives from Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union; the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union; Communications Workers of America District 1; and the United Federation of Teachers, which collectively provide hundreds of thousands of dollars to the community groups.

Fed up with dealing with a man who attacks you whether you side with him or not, and who can’t be trusted to keep his promises, the Working Families Party promptly endorsed Cynthia Nixon by a vote of more than 90% in favor.  And SEIU 32BJ and CWA Local 1 have not only pulled their funding but are considering creating a rival third party (just like Cuomo did with the Women’s Equality Party back in 2014).

The reason I bring this up isn’t simply to keep you up-to-date on the byzantine politics of the Empire State, but to contrast it against another piece of news that came across my desk on the very same day:

The 2.1 million-member California Labor Federation endorsed Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom for governor and state Sen. Kevin de Léon for U.S. Senate on Thursday.

The endorsement could be particularly helpful in providing grassroots campaign help for de Léon.

According to the latest campaign finance reports, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has $9.8 million cash on hand going into the June 5 primary, compared with $359,261 for de Léon. She also sits on a personal fortune of more than $50 million. And she was also well ahead of the Los Angeles Democrat in a March poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

“If (union members) do what I know what they’re capable of doing, they can have a sizable impact,” de Léon said after being informed of the endorsement.

In 2012, the labor federation endorsed Feinstein.

The group’s executive secretary-treasurer, Art Pulaski, said de León was more closely allied with the labor federation “on good jobs, climate change, $15 minimum wage, protecting immigrant workers and supporting the right to stand together in a union.”

In the first case, we have a labor movement trying to kill its own political party at the whim of an incumbent politician, and in the second case, we have a labor movement endorsing against a powerful incumbent politician to push the political system in a pro-worker direction. Which choice exemplifies the future of the labor movement in American politics, and which should?

Pennywise and Pound Foolish

Regarding the New York case, I want to point out that it’s not just the Working Families Party who are taking the hit from their major funders. The word went forth from Andrew Cuomo that all social movement organizations endorsing Cynthia Nixon are to be defunded, including groups like Citizen Action, New York Communities for Change, and Make the Road, which have been at the heart of progressive organizing in this state.

These organizations spun out of the collapse of ACORN (another case where the Democratic Party fecklessly assented to the destruction of its organizational base in working-class communities), and New York unions have funded their work for a decade because they’ve been the most successful vehicle for achieving the labor movement’s goals on everything from the Fight for Fifteen to fighting Trump’s immigration ban to fighting for a New York DREAM Act and affordable housing and equitable education.

Blowing up a decade’s worth of organizing work for the favor of a single incumbent is the definition of self-sabotage. Even if it works, you get one good contract from one politician (who will stab you in the back the moment he doesn’t need you) at the cost of having any independent institutional power that will make that politician listen to you in the future.

(If you think this sucks, the WFP, NY Communities for Change, and Make the Road could all use your support as a monthly donor, because they’ve taken a huge financial hit for their stand.)

Image result for pennywise sewerHell-Bent for Election

By contrast, the California Labor Federation’s move to endorse a challenger to Senator Dianne Feinstein is incredibly bold. Here, endorsing the incumbent was the safe move – Feinstein’s been in the U.S Senate since 1992, she gets re-elected with huge numbers, and she’s got essentially infinite money by the standards of California politics.

And yet, I would argue that this is the right play. Already, progressive activists within and without the labor movement proper have shown that they can deny a sitting U.S Senator the Democratic Party endorsement (and came a hair’s breadth away from giving it to Kevin De Leon). By putting their weight behind the challenger, unions like SEIU and the California Nurse’s Association have an opportunity to flex their electoral muscles and show every candidate for office up and down the ballot that unless they support the unions on a $15 minimum wage and/or single-payer, they will face a well-financed challenger who they may have to face in both a primary and general election (because of California’s deeply screwy top-two primary system). And who knows, they might even knock off a sitting senator and put in their place someone who’ll owe their political career to the labor movement.

This is the kind of political strategy that builds long-term institutional power. The labor movement won’t win every political battle, but they will maintain their independent power and ensure that, in years to come, elected officials and candidates will need to seek their favor rather than dictating terms from above.

Conclusion

As the code of professional historians dictates I say, I’m not good at predicting the future. I don’t know whether the labor movement nationally or state-by-state will follow the model of New York or California when it comes to politics (the teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, and Colorado have shown that there’s a direct action option which exists outside of, although potentially complementary with, a political approach). It may well be that, in the face of the Supreme Court’s pending decision in Janus v. AFSCME, unions will be so dependent on the goodwill of incumbents to keep their finances in working order that they’ll do whatever is asked of them. It may well be that they choose to make a fight of it.

But I do know that the labor movement will never make any forward progress if they take the former path, which is why I’m signing up as a monthly supporter of WFP.

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