Why did labor fail again?

January 7, 2013

Veteran activist and WBAI host Sandy Boyer asks why unions and liberal groups are once again tolerating Democratic compromises with the Republicans on taxes.

WHEN BARACK Obama and Congressional Democrats passed the deal to avert the "fiscal cliff," they inadvertently proved how politically powerless the labor movement and its liberal allies really are.

After all the campaign rhetoric about taxing the rich, people making up to $400,000 a year (the thresholds for joint filers is $450,000) won't wind up paying an extra penny in income taxes. After all the talk about fairness, it's working people who will hit with a big increase in the payroll tax.

Before the vote, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka twittered that it was "not a good fiscal cliff deal if it gives more tax cuts to [the] 2 percent." The entire panoply of liberal and progressive lobbying groups, including MoveOn.Org, Credo Action, ColorOfChange, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America joined the AFL-CIO in opposing compromises by the White House and Democrats.

The result of all this pressure: only three Democratic senators and 16 House Democrats voted against the deal.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks to reporters outside the White House
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks to reporters outside the White House

Labor and its liberal allies are rapidly running out of excuses for their constant political failures.

In Michigan, they said they were taken by surprise when "right-to-work" legislation was sprung on them at the last minute. This time, everyone knew for months that a deal was in the making and when it would need to be voted on--right down to the day and the hour.

In Wisconsin and Indiana, they blamed Republican governors and Republican majorities in the state legislatures. When the federal budget deal came up for a vote, there was a Democratic president and Democrats in control of the Senate.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Democrats have nothing to fear from the unions or liberals. Richard Trumka confirmed that after the budget vote when he proclaimed: "The agreement passed by the Senate last night is a breakthrough in beginning to restore tax fairness and achieves some key goals of working families...A strong message from voters and a relentless echo from grassroots activists over the last six weeks helped get us this far."

Democrats know that unions and the liberals will keep the endorsements and the money coming, no matter how far right they move. In every election, there will always be a Republican running who is even more right wing than the Democrat, so the unions will faithfully go on supporting "the lesser evil." As a result, the Democrats look more like the Republicans every day.

The unions could learn something from the LGBT movement and undocumented immigrants who won concessions from the Obama administration. When Obama was stalling on "don't ask don't tell" and marriage equality, some LBGT leaders let it be known that they were considering cutting off contributions to the Democratic Party. If the AFL-CIO tried that, the results might amaze them.

After the DREAM Act failed in Congress, young undocumented immigrants continued to organize highly visible and very dramatic protests throughout the country. Democrats began to worry that unless they did something soon, they could lose Latino votes in the November elections.

In June, Obama finally issued an executive order allowing at least some young immigrants to remain in the U.S. without the fear of being deported. Labor leaders might have wanted to consider organizing these kinds of protests against the budget deal before it was too late.

WHAT LABOR needs now is a political declaration of independence. It would start with mobilizing union members instead of relying on high-priced lobbyists to whisper in politicians' ears.

Even today, there is a union local in virtually every good-sized city or town in the country. These union locals could start right now to organize their own local actions to resist the cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that Obama and the Republicans are about to negotiate.

If labor begins a serious fight back, it would soon be joined by African American and Latino organizations, the Occupy movement, churches, and other progressive forces in the country. Otherwise, if the Democrats and Republicans are left to their own devices, serious cuts in vital social programs are virtually inevitable.

Even this won't be enough as long as the Democrats know that they can count on labor and its allies to turn out the vote for all their candidates in every election. As practical politicians, they wouldn't dream of making concessions to groups that never threaten them. In crass electoral terms, it will always be much more profitable to move to the center and the right.

With congressional elections only two years away, now is the time for labor to serve notice that it can't be taken for granted anymore. If the unions announced they would run their own candidates against at least some of the Democrats who vote for cuts in the social programs working people need, they could transform the political landscape.

Very few things focus a politician's mind like the prospect of losing office. And very few things would capture the attention of the national Democratic Party like the fear of losing seats in Congress.

Running independent progressive candidates might mean that some Republicans would get elected. That would be unfortunate, but the alternative is the emerging bipartisan political consensus that the needs of working people can be sacrificed for the interests of the super-rich and multinational corporations.

Many entrenched labor leaders would see a political declaration of independence as a fate worse than death. They'd have to break off their cozy relationships with Democratic politicians that they've spent years cultivating. They would be challenged to redirect at least some of the millions of dollars they've raised for political action, most of it destined to be used to elect Democrats.

Most of all, they would have to redirect power and resources from the central leadership to members and the locals. A nationwide fightback won't be organized by a command from the unions' national headquarters. It would take local leaders and members who have the power and authority to mobilize in their own communities.

The Chicago teachers' strike, the Wisconsin Capitol occupation and solidarity actions by the West Coast longshore workers have showed us that this kind of labor movement is possible. We need to begin building it now because the alternative will be a catastrophe for working people.

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