From labor's hope to lesser evil?

Lee Sustar argues that union leaders who push members to vote for Democratic candidates are setting back the labor movement's own agenda.

UAW President Bob King speaks at the One Nation march in Washington, D.C.UAW President Bob King speaks at the One Nation march in Washington, D.C.

UNION LEADERS are once again trying to corral members into voting for Democrats November 2--but there are more reasons than ever for workers to buck the trend.

Two years ago, union officials could make a straightforward case: The George W. Bush administration unleashed corporations, turned labor law into a management tool and ran the economy off a cliff. Barack Obama had declared his support for unions, promised to back the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that would make it easier to organize unions, and vowed to stimulate an economic revival that would bring new jobs.

But this time, union officials are having a much harder time stirring the passion of members suffering the pain of layoffs, wage cuts and reductions in social services. As Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times noted, "Union members, like other important parts of the Democratic base, are not feeling particularly enthusiastic about the party."

And for good reason. After carrying out a money-is-no-object, multi-trillion-dollar rescue of the banks, the White House rolled over whenever the Republicans put up opposition, from weakening the $787 billion stimulus program of 2009 to gutting the health care reform that passed earlier this year. And EFCA? All the provisions that had any teeth were pulled from the bill with the Democrats' approval, but it still never became law.

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AT THE labor-heavy October 2 One Nation march and rally, union leaders tried to dance around these facts. "We know that a minority in the U.S. Senate has prevented even discussion of 400 bills passed by the House of Representatives, including the Employee Free Choice Act," Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen said in his remarks to the crowd. "We also know, that working together, we can work for progressive change on November 2."

Hold on. Senate Democrats held a filibuster-proof majority for much of Obama's first year in office. As politically active union members are all too aware, it was conservative Democrats who blocked with Republicans to carve up Obama's already weak legislative proposals.

Only with defeat in the midterm elections looming did Obama step up with an education jobs bill to curb some--but far from all--teacher layoffs and a $50 billion infrastructure spending program that was DOA in Congress.

So given the Democrats' inescapably sorry record, some union officials at the march tried to mobilize the rank and file not with hope, but fear. "This nation is at a crossroads," UAW President Bob King said in his remarks. "There are two profoundly different visions before us. Two radically different dreams for what is America."

King, to his credit, called for diverting federal funds from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to education and the creation of green jobs. But he focused not on the progress that the Democrats would bring, but the threats from the right: "The voices of division try to undermine Social Security which keeps millions of seniors out of poverty," he said.

The problem is that it's Obama who handed the Social Security budget axe to the Republicans. The president's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform will make a post-election report that will almost certainly recommend cuts in not only Social Security, but also Medicare and Medicaid.

But none of this gives pause to union officials. Labor leaders have quietly abandoned their promises to oppose Democrats who broke with the unions on health care and other legislation--just as they shuffled back into line behind the party even after President Bill Clinton and a Democratic Congress pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. As AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka told the Times, "There's no ambivalence here with the leadership."

Indeed. According to the AFL-CIO, unions will spend about $50 million on the election, while the Service Employees International Union, which is outside the federation, will spend $44 million. Millions more dollars will be spent by other unions.

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MANY UNION officials at the local level look askance at their international union leaders' slavish devotion to the Democrats.

Yet even reform and militant local union leaders almost always play the game--for practical and pragmatic reasons, they say. Public-sector unions want a friendlier face across the bargaining table, so are typically enmeshed in Democratic politics. Private-sector unions seek labor law reform and spending projects to create jobs. Support for state and local Democrats, the argument goes, is essential to getting things done, and to keep in step with the wider labor movement.

Such an approach may have been enough to secure some favors here or there over the past 30 years or so. But the relentless decline in union membership is harsh evidence that labor's attempts to solve its economic problems through mainstream politics have failed.

Some may argue that in the pay-to-play politics that pervades U.S. politics, unions have no choice but to join that game. But all that has been accomplished is that labor has been taken granted, pouring money into the Democrats' campaign coffers with practically nothing to show for it. And in today's terrible economy, with a bipartisan push for austerity, many leading Democrats aren't even bothering to hide their anti-labor agenda even as the unions push for support for them.

Take Andrew Cuomo, the frontrunner in the governor's race in New York. His attacks on teachers' unions and other public-sector employees could come from any Republican. He wants public-sector unions take a one-year wage freeze and sacrifice to bail out New York's budget mess. His model: the 1970s fiscal crisis, when public-sector union leaders agreed to accept of thousands of layoffs.

Cuomo's public-sector union bashing is so ugly that the New York State United Teachers and the Civil Service Employees Association have--so far, at least--withheld their endorsements. But the state AFL-CIO backed him anyway, thanks to the support of private-sector unions.

In California, Jerry Brown has gone out of his way to tell unions they can expect no relief from him after years of taking the brunt of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's barrage of unpaid furlough days, layoffs and budget cuts. In an interview with San Francisco Chronicle, he said that if elected, he would have to "do things that labor doesn't like"--including cutting public employee pensions and asking union leaders to "put everything on the table" to help cut California's budget.

Even so, labor leaders are going all out to try to turn out the vote for Brown--on the basis that his Republican rival, eBay billionaire Meg Whitman, will be worse. But as a statement by teachers' union activists points out, Brown "accepts the logic of balancing the crisis on the backs of state workers, students, the poor and the disabled."

In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn, who took office after the impeachment of scandal-ridden Rod Blagojevich, is desperately trying to hang on to office in a state where the budget crisis is approaching that of California's.

Quinn's opponent, Bill Brady, accuses the governor of trying to buy labor's vote with a recent deal that actually includes $50 million in concessions from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in exchange for no layoffs until June 2012. It's a measure of today's crisis--and labor's weakness--that stiff concessions can be portrayed in the media as a sweetheart deal.

Quinn is also eager to get the endorsements of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). But Quinn shafted teachers earlier this year when he quickly signed a bill that cut public employee pensions by $220 billion over the next 35 years by forcing new hires to work until they are 67. That was enough for the IFT to withhold its endorsement.

The new leadership of the CTU, which came to office in July on a promise to resist cuts and layoffs, was more open to Quinn. But when the question came up at the CTU House of Delegates meeting September 15, rank-and-file delegates rejected the recommendations of the union's Political Action Committee and refused to endorse Quinn.

The issue could well come before the next CTU House of Delegates meeting set for October 6. The CTU delegates should stick to their guns and refuse to back a politician who stabbed them in the back. In Illinois, in fact, there's a progressive alternative to the Democrats: Rich Whitney, the candidate of the Green Party, who got 10 percent of the vote for governor in 2006, when organized labor was mobilizing for the now disgraced Blagojevich.

At a time when both parties are united in making working people bear the brunt of the economic crisis, union members would do well to recall the famous quote of the Socialist Party's Eugene Debs, who battled the U.S. political duopoly in presidential campaigns a century ago: "I'd rather vote for something I want and not get it, than vote for something I don't want and get it."