Leftists were really excited a few months ago when India Walton won the Democratic primary to be mayor of Buffalo. But that excitement dried up quickly when the sitting mayor, Byron Brown, decided to run a write-in campaign that would unite centrists and conservative voters against the socialist. He’s probably going to win. She is pretty far to the left and has made a few missteps along the way that are common for upstart candidates. But what is especially interesting, and perhaps disheartening, is that organized labor in Buffalo, outside of a few small unions, are rallying behind Brown. Daniel Marans wrote a story about this for HuffPo and I provided a little commentary on the issue, noting that a) most unions are not radical or socialist and b) unions with municipal contracts know where their bread is buttered.
A few hours later, Mayor Byron Brown, a moderate who lost to Walton in the Democratic primary in June and is running a well-funded write-in campaign against her, laid his claim to the union mantle.
Flanked by union members atop the bed of a truck parked in a vacant lot on Buffalo’s East Side, Brown singled out organized labor for gratitude that he accorded to none of his other allies.
“I want to thank organized labor that has stood so strong with me,” he said, ticking off a list of union members’ contributions that included door knocking, phone calls and literature distribution on his behalf.
As unions strategize ways to maintain their numbers at a time of historically low union membership in the United States, they have conflicting impulses about whether to play it safe or engage in what many union officials see as a high-risk, high-reward strategy.
“Fundamentally, despite what we want to think about unions as the vanguard of the working class and leaning toward radical change, the actual functional structure of unions in the United States is that they represent the interests of their members as they see it,” said Erik Loomis, a University of Rhode Island historian of the U.S. labor movement and author of the book “A History of America in Ten Strikes.”
“For a lot of unions, their interests, at least as perceived by the workers themselves and by their leaders, are not necessarily that radical,” Loomis said.
Especially in states like New York where unions enjoy bipartisan support and retain levels of membership and influence that are the envy of their counterparts in other states, unions are often loath to take any steps that they believe could jeopardize existing power. Even in the Buffalo metropolitan area, where the decline of manufacturing has devastated organized labor, over 20% of the working population belongs to a union ― nearly twice the rate of the country as a whole.
In such an environment, a union breaking with an incumbent Democrat in a general election ― to say nothing of a Democratic primary ― is highly unusual.
“You have these power centers in the union movement that have been built up over decades now,” Loomis said. “There’s not that many of them left in the United States, so if anything, union leaders in these places are going to be even less willing to take risks than they were in the past.”
That kind of political cautiousness is especially apparent in the Buffalo Teachers Federation’s change of heart about Walton. The city’s teachers union found Walton’s opposition to charter schools appealing enough to endorse her in the primary. But BTF President Phil Rumore told the Buffalo News on Friday that endorsing Walton in the general election “would be too divisive” among its members. (Rumore did not respond to HuffPost’s request for clarification of his remarks or additional details about the decision.)
While the mayor does not have direct control over Buffalo’s public school district, the teachers union may still be hedging its bets in the event of a Brown victory, Loomis ventured.
“I suspect a lot of it is fear,” Loomis said.
In short, unions tend to prioritize short-term comfort over long-term strategy. Moreover, they know they have a friend in the office in Brown wins with their support and if they don’t support him, a very real enemy. I also suspect they know that Walton would work with them if she manages to win. Brown is one of these old-school cutthroat urban machine guys and unions know not to mess with this type until the stake has been plunged through the heart.
This might not be the union movement people want to see. But it is very much the union movement that exists in this nation.