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Invitation to Surrender


Several readers recommended this Doug Henwood piece, which is sort of a leftier-than-thou version of Ezra Klein’s fatalism, arguing that organized labor should cede the field of electoral politics. Henwood is generally worth reading, but I think this particular argument fails pretty badly. The central problem is readily apparent: Wisconsin is a particularly inappropriate context to argue that electoral politics doesn’t matter. I can understand why Glenn Greenwald tends to exaggerate the similarity of the parties, because with respect to the issues he cares most about the differences really are pretty marginal. But in this case, we have a labor-crushing policy instituted by a united Republican government, that had never been considered when Democrats controlled any branch of the state government and would not have been passed if they still did, and did pass not only without Democratic support but with a Democratic opposition that went to unusual lengths to try to stop it. To derive from this a lesson that electoral politics isn’t worth bothering with because a longshot recall election failed is, to say the least, wrongheaded.

I don’t have any objection to Henwood’s real talk about the popularity of unions per se, although as Rich Yeselson says we shouldn’t forget that the recent labor victory in Ohio; things aren’t quite as bad as all that. And I agree that, given the margin, Walker’s money advantage probably wasn’t decisive. But Henwood’s proposed responses are fundamental sentimental, and would make the problems of working-class Americans substantially worse.

I’ll take on a few individual arguments, not necessarily in the order he makes them:

Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats—$45 million of it this year alone (Labor: Long-Term Contribution Trends). What do they have to show for it?

[Raises hand timorously] “The Aqueduct Collective bargaining rights not being removed in states where Democrats retain power? NLRB appointees who are actually pro-labor? Judges who might favorably decide employment discrimination claims? The Ledbetter Act? The idea that labor contributions to Democrats produce nothing is transparently wrong, and the idea that if the Democrats are to the right of a European social democratic party it’s not worth trying to keep the Republicans out of power is wrong, and was proven epically wrong in Wisconsin.

Now if the argument is that Democrats aren’t pro-labor enough, this is certainly correct. But “not enough” isn’t “nothing,” and more importantly one thing that won’t make the Democrats more pro-labor is if an even greater percentage of their money comes from corporations.

But lingering too long on the money explanation is too easy. Several issues must be stared down. One is the horrible mistake of channelling a popular uprising into electoral politics.

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.

What would have happened it is…Wisconsin public sector workers would also not have collective bargaining rights. Most voters would not have paid attention to this campaign, which if it showed any effectiveness could easily be countered by the better-funded right. I’m not crazy about the recall strategy, and I especially wasn’t crazy about it not being on election day, but say this for it: if it succeeded, it would have had a clear, tangible, major benefit. And even if we agree that the recall wasn’t a good strategy to infer from this that labor should completely abandon electoral politics is bizarre. It’s certainly not the lesson conservatives inferred from the crushing of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and look at us now.

Imagine if they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere.

To state the obvious: we wouldn’t be any closer to single payer than we are now. Even if we generously assume that this lobbying campaign would increase public support for single-payer, a lack of public support for single payer is not the crucial barrier. You need, in concrete terms, to explain how this campaign would get a majority for single-payer in the House and a supermajority in the Senate. Under current conditions, no lobbying campaign is going to get single-payer the slightest consideration in the House. Henwood’s argument is like criticizing the NAACP in 1948 for using piecemeal litigation rather than putting all the money from the LDF into lobbying the Mississippi legislature. Even if we generously assume that we’re permanently dealing with the more favorable circumstances of 2009, this lobbying effort would still be a waste of money. An increase in popularity in single payer is irrelevant for Evan Bayh and Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman because they’re not running for anything. And even for the conservative Democrats that are, even if single-payer becomes more popular 1)it won’t necessarily become more popular in the more conserative, more anti-labor jurisdictions they’re likely to represent, and 2)just because an issue becomes more popular doesn’t mean your vote will depend on it. But wait — it gets worse. Remember than in Henwood’s dream scenario, these legislators are getting zero money from labor to counteract their corporate donations. Not only is there less than no chance of getting single payer in that scenario even if you could make it more popular than free beer (which you can’t), you couldn’t even get the PPACA. And, of course, labor will become steadily less powerful because Henwood is proposing that unions spend less of their members’ dues looking out for their interests and more engaging in lobbying that 1)many members will disagree with and 2)has zero chance of producing tangible results. Yeah, that’s going to be a real boon to labor mobilization.

And the final problem with proposing a splendid isolation between labor organizing and electoral politics is that the latter greatly affects the former. The decline of labor isn’t just something that happened because labor leaders don’t know what they’re doing; it was the deliberate and predictable effect of Taft-Hartley. The most imaginative and effective organizing techniques aren’t going to make up for the ground that labor has lost in Wisconsin because of Scott Walker. Effective labor organizing, among other things, requires statutory protections. Ceding the field of electoral politics would be bad for the immediate interests of labor and bad for policies that favor working people more broadly. Labor can’t choose between electoral politics and other forms of politics and organizing; it needs to do both. And moreover, it’s not a zero-sum game, but involves virtuous and vicious circles.

Anyway, I think rather than labor trying this out I would invite the religious right and the Tea Party to give Henwood’s strategy of abjuring electoral politics a try.   Wisconsin’s public sector workers would get their collective bargaining rights back, and the prospect that hectoring people door-to-door or over the phone about the importance of limited government will produce results that are worth more than having Republicans in the legislature is a risk I’m willing to take.  Somehow, I don’t think they’re going to take him up on it.

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