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Labor Unity

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Noam Scheiber’s dissection of how labor so successfully torpedoed the Trans Pacific Partnership in the House (thus far anyway, again I’m still suspicious this passes somehow) shows how labor can still win today. First, it is united and pushes very hard on erstwhile allies that are ready to abandon it. Second, it crafts alliances with other liberal groups, including environmentalists.

This time around, not only did the firefighters make a considerable investment — producing ads and paying to broadcast them in five congressional districts — but Mr. Schaitberger personally led the effort within the A.F.L-C.I.O. executive council to freeze all donations to members of Congress by the political action committees of the federation and affiliated unions until after the vote on trade promotion authority. (Mr. Schaitberger, who developed the motion, credits Mr. Trumka with helping create almost unanimous support for it.)

Mr. Schaitberger acknowledged some apprehension within the labor movement about denying money even to longtime congressional allies, but he argued that it had been the most effective way to persuade friendly members of Congress to pressure wavering Democratic lawmakers. “We wanted to encourage those members to use their influence, their passion for our position, to move some of their colleagues,” he said.

Even labor’s opponents marveled at the cohesion unions brought to the fight. John Murphy, senior vice president for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said he was mystified by the position of the Service Employees International Union, which represents two million workers.

“None of these workers are in any way negatively affected by competition with imports,” said Mr. Murphy. “Yet S.E.I.U. will be there, showing solidarity.”

The across-the-board mobilization by labor unions reflected two pivotal developments since the late 1990s. First was the dawning realization that even public sector workers who appear to be insulated from global competition could ultimately feel its dislocating effects. Mr. Schaitberger said the firefighters had learned all too well that deindustrialization leads to urban decay and declining property values, which can increase demand for public services while it drains cities of the revenue to pay for them.

More recently, the public sector unions, under increasing assault from Republicans in Congress and in several big states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana, found that the rapid decline of industrial unions had left them politically vulnerable as well.

It’s not like unity, solidarity with other unions in situations that don’t directly affect your members’ jobs, and alliance-building with other progressives is always that easy to replicate. But this is a clear way forward and I hope organized labor can build on it.

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