Home / General / Labor-Environmentalist Rift in the Democratic Party? Not Really.

Labor-Environmentalist Rift in the Democratic Party? Not Really.

Comments
/
/
/
965 Views

tu

The New York Times had a piece on the supposed rift in Democratic Party get out the vote efforts over the party embracing the fight against climate change. I need to excerpt this in some length for you:

Two of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies, labor and environmentalists, are clashing over an effort to raise tens of millions of dollars for an ambitious voter turnout operation aimed at defeating Donald J. Trump in the November election.

The rift developed after some in the labor movement, whose cash flow has dwindled and whose political clout has been increasingly imperiled, announced a partnership last week with a wealthy environmentalist, Tom Steyer, to help bankroll a new fund dedicated to electing Democrats.

That joint initiative enraged members of the nation’s biggest construction unions, already on edge about the rising influence of climate-change activists. The building-trades unions view Mr. Steyer’s environmental agenda as a threat to the jobs that can be created through infrastructure projects like new gas pipelines.

The dispute, laid bare in a pair of blistering letters sent on Monday to Richard L. Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., underscored the tensions between the two pillars of the Democratic coalition.

For decades, organized labor was among the most powerful forces on the left, financing Democratic candidates and reliably delivering working-class votes, and political foot soldiers, for the party in crucial states and districts.

But with blue-collar white voters shifting to the Republican Party and Democrats growing more reliant on higher-income voters and liberal donors like Mr. Steyer, environmental activists are increasingly muscling out unions.

The friction is not just confined to the Democratic Party: The labor movement itself is changing. As manufacturing has declined, power has flowed away from the unions representing factory and construction workers and toward public- and service-sector workers. The unions that formed the alliance with Mr. Steyer included the two largest teachers’ unions and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The goal of the new voter turnout “super PAC,” announced last week with an initial goal of raising $50 million, was to ensure that liberal groups did not duplicate their efforts, as had happened in some elections. Some unions were asked to give as much as $1 million. Mr. Steyer, founder of the advocacy group NextGen Climate, announced that he would give $5 million and said it was “highly likely” other unions would participate.

But Mr. Steyer has opposed oil and gas projects like the Keystone pipeline, and the construction unions assailed the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s willingness to make common cause with him as an abandonment of their members and the federation’s principles.

In one of the two letters sent on Monday, presidents of seven of the nation’s biggest construction unions threatened to boycott the new get-out-the-vote effort, called For Our Future PAC.

“It saddens us that the very labor movement we have fought for and supported for over a century seems to have lost sight of its core mission and has moved away from us and our membership in the interest of headline-grabbing political expediency,” wrote the leaders of the operating engineers, plumbers, elevator constructors, roofers, laborers, plasterers, and heat and frost insulators.

In a separate and even more harshly worded letter to Mr. Trumka, the president of the 500,000-member laborers union, Terry O’Sullivan, called the partnership a “politically bankrupt betrayal” of union members. “We object to the political agenda of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. being sold to a job-killing hedge fund manager with a bag of cash,” he wrote.

There’s a few things going on here.

First, note that this is really a division within the labor movement, not between labor and environmentalists. What will the labor movement look like in 5 years, 10 years, 25 years? Will it be a few holdouts in the skilled trades or will it organize a mass of workers? Will it be part of a broad-based progressive coalition or will it focus just on the economic well-being of a few members? These are the questions that are at the center of the divide you read about here. On one hand you have LIUNA. On the other, you have AFSCME, NEA, and AFT (I really wish SEIU was on board here).

This is related to changes in the labor movement over the past four decades. What the CIO did was undermine the building trades’ domination over the labor movement. But even though the rise of public sector unionism has to some extent replaced it, the loss of the giant and generally progressive industrial unions like the UAW (now only the 11th largest union in the country) and USWA has left a vacuum that the building trades were more than happy to fill. So what you have in the labor movement, other than remnant industrial unions, are the often very politically conservative (although not universally so) building trades that have been conservative for a century or more and the public sector unions that really operate with very different classes (and races) of workers and that sometimes really have very little in common with a union like the Laborers. You have really working class people on one hand and you have teachers and govenrment employees on the other. That doesn’t mean that public sector unionism is a middle-class movement, but it is a different sort of worker, by and large, than who the Laborers represent. That’s the real story here, not some theoretical divide in Democratic GOTV efforts, which, let’s face it, the building trades aren’t that great on anyway. If some of these unions actually endorsed Trump because Hillary Clinton wants to fight climate change, well many of their members were probably were going to vote Trump anyway.

Second, LIUNA president Terry O’Sullivan is a bully. O’Sullivan has been absolutely abysmal on these issues for years. He has bullied other unions who have stood up to say we need to fight climate change. He has bullied unions who have been neutral or even suggested that maybe this should be an issue to consider. He is bullying unions with this letter. He is a dead-ender on environmental issues. Sadly, O’Sullivan genuinely believes that environmentalism costs unions jobs. While I wouldn’t quite call O’Sullivan a bad actor here, he legitimately does not seem to think that allying with other progressive organizations matters. Now, I understand that his membership needs work, but he has turned sharply to the right on this issue. The other unions involved in this are basically irrelevant, having very small memberships. I’ve never even heard of the International Union of Elevator Constructors. Also, to his credit, Richard Trumka has been very smart on dealing with this issue, largely by letting O’Sullivan yell and scream and then doing nothing of note to back him up.

Third, and I don’t want to overstate this issue, but O’Sullivan does have a point about the billionaire control of the party’s direction. Here he is channeling the same kind of discomfort that has led to the Bernie Sanders phenomenon. In a post-Citizens United world, someone like Tom Steyer automatically gets a bigger say in party policymaking. On the other hand, climate change is very much a working-class issue. It might not be an issue for LIUNA, but it is a huge issue for the poor around the nation and the world. That alone should be more than enough to support the agenda, not only of Steyer, but of AFSCME and AFT.

In the end, I don’t think anyone should make too much of this. The labor movement has basically always been divided on various policy issues. Sometimes, unions have left the AFL entirely, whether to organize industrially or because the federation was too conservative or because of whatever reason Andy Stern created Change to Win. Occasionally, some of the most conservative unions have endorsed Nixon or Reagan. Among them was PATCO in 1980. That worked out well. If LIUNA isn’t going to join the Democratic GOTV effort, well, I’d rather take AFSCME’s effort on that any day.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
It is main inner container footer text