Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Labor: The Lackey of the Democratic Party

Mike Elk has a fantastic piece criticizing AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka for being the latest in a long line of labor leaders who talk a big game about challenging the Democratic Party but end up doing whatever it asks, even though labor receives almost nothing in return.

...the truth is that Trumka’s talk of political independence is shallow and weak. Most labor leaders make the same speech about political independence every two years in the off-year before a congressional election. Then, when the election comes around, labor leaders often twist arms to get mortgages signed on their headquarters so they can give even more money to the Democratic Party in the final days before the vote.

You can find nearly identical quotes from AFL-CIO President George Meany in the 1960s during Johnson’s Democratic administration, from President Lane Kirkland in the late 1970s under Jimmy Carter, and from President John Sweeney in the 1990s under Bill Clinton. In fact, you can even go back two years before the last election to see Trumka saying labor might sit out the election. He ended up urging all union members to go out and vote for Democrats.

Every single labor leader in the history of the labor movement has beat his chest about organized labor declaring its political independence the way Trumka is now, but never delivered on the declaration of political independence.

It's not of course that labor should eschew the Democratic Party. Rather, it should push its own agenda and support openly pro-labor candidates rather than going all-out for Democrats who will vote against labor when they are elected. 

In the progressive blogosphere, the rare times when labor is mentioned, it is almost always in terms of how it relates to Democratic policy politics--will labor be able to get out the vote? Labor is hardly ever discussed as an movement independent of a political party with its own goals, agenda, and priorities. And if it does have those things, it is perceived that it can only achieve those ends through the Democratic Party.

In no small part, this is the fault of labor leaders themselves. They see themselves as operating within respectable channels of the Democratic Party. They froze up during the Wisconsin protests because they were by and large far less comfortable with strikes and mass movements than with playing the political game. And thus they demobilized the street protests that so powerfully riveted the nation this winter. 

Again, this isn't to denigrate party politics. Obviously that's very important. But people rightfully don't think of the anti-abortion movement firmly within Republican Party politics. Or if they do, they should understand that this movement existed well outside the party until it could slowly take it over from the inside. And while Republicans absolutely have treated the anti-abortion movement as a get-out-the-vote mechanism over the years, the anti-abortionists have also increasingly demanded and received their payment in return. And today they own the party in a way labor can only dream of.

Labor shouldn't try to start a 3rd party movement or anything like that. But it should also not do Democrats' bidding. While Republicans are worse for labor than Democrats, the current crop of Democrats are not supporting labor's interests anyway. Is a slow death worse than a sudden death? I'd say it probably doesn't make much difference, especially now that Republicans like Scott Walker are looking to take labor off life support.

And in any case, as Elk points out, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Trumka is serious about promoting an independent course for labor until he actually does so.