Steering the struggle toward the ballot box

March 17, 2011

The uprising in Wisconsin may have rekindled the romance between labor and the Democrats--but it also created a sense of solidarity and the experience of direct action.

AT THE demonstrations in Wisconsin against Republican Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting, the heroes of the moment are the 14 Democratic state senators who fled the state to deny the Republicans a quorum for their "budget repair bill."

That sentiment was certainly on display March 12 when an enormous pro-labor crowd of 150,000 cheered the "Fab 14" as, now returned to Wisconsin, they took their turns at the microphone. Chants of "thank you, thank you" directed at the senators erupted across the Capitol Square in Madison.

For the Democrats and organized labor, which had just suffered a historic setback after Walker strong-armed the anti-union bill through the Wisconsin legislature, the mood was surprisingly optimistic. Don Taylor, a Wisconsin labor activist, expressed this lemonade-from-lemons attitude in an article on the website:

The favor the Republicans have done the progressive movement is that they have made the political lines of this fight crystal clear. The Democrats' hands are clean. The distinction between those who stood with workers and those who are against workers is obvious and unblurred.

Even if the "Fab 14" didn't have to do much to win support from the crowds, their actions contrast favorably with the refusal of the national Democratic Party--starting with the White House--to stand decisively with public-sector workers facing unprecedented attacks in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and a half a dozen other states.

According to a March 3 New York Times report, the White House put the kibosh on the effort of two Democratic National Committee staffers to raise support for public-sector workers. The Obama administration worried that such an open stand on the side of people who are, after all, among the most loyal Democratic Party supporters, would undermine its cheerful and pro-business "winning the future" message, the Times reported.

For labor, the fight to preserve public-sector bargaining rights is an existential fight. The public sector is the last bastion of labor strength in an increasingly de-unionized economy. If the unions lose their foothold in the public sector, the present weak state of labor will become a non-existent state of labor. Even the most hidebound labor official can recognize how the destruction of unions threatens their careers.

The Democrats, on the other hand, don't face extinction. But they face the loss of a substantial proportion of their electoral machinery.

While the monetary component of labor's commitment to the Democrats is substantial, it pales in comparison to the amount of business and professional money that funds the Democratic Party. More important, however, is the amount of time and effort labor unions expend in phone banking, canvassing and getting out the vote for Democratic candidates. Without that, the Democrats would have a tough time in winning elections.

YET THE labor-Democratic alliance has come at a steep cost to the ability of the unions to advance even the most base-level sense of working-class politics in the American political system. In the 1930s to 1960s heyday of the "lib-lab" alliance, labor formed the backbone of liberalism in the Democratic Party. But in playing this role, union leaders' partisan commitment to the Democrats replaced any commitment to pro-working-class policies.

"Pro-union" positions became simply identified with Democratic candidates' positions, whatever their intention. The unions could not stand for working-class politics inside the Democratic Party without provoking business opposition. Therefore, they trimmed their demands so that they would be acceptable to pro-Democratic business forces.

This dynamic has been on display in Madison since Walker foisted his "budget repair bill" on the Wisconsin state legislature. Raw class anger exploded in direct action to block the state senate from acting--and to force the Democratic senators to absent themselves. A two-day statewide teachers' sickout supported bill protesters with industrial action. For weeks, workers and students occupied the state Capitol building.

Within a couple of days, these actions had thrust the issue of workers' rights and class inequality to the forefront of the usual brain-dead discussion of national politics, currently centered on austerity and "entitlement reform." No politician or election had produced this dynamic. Only action from below had.

But as statewide and national-level labor officials asserted control over the uprising, the movement's aims and tactics shifted onto the only terrain that modern-day labor officials seem to understand: elections and support for the Democrats. The contrast between the two enormous demonstrations in Madison, one on February 26 and the follow-up on March 12, illustrated this.

The first, taking place while thousands still held the Capitol, allowed raw class anger to flow from the official podium and from the unofficial free speech area in the Capitol rotunda. The second, taking place after the union-busting bill passed and the Capitol was cleared of protesters, was a tightly controlled affair, with national labor leaders, celebrities and the "Fab 14" speaking less about class and more about elections and recalls.

While anyone who opposes the power-grab in Wisconsin should welcome the recall of Walker and his minions, the shift of the labor upsurge solely into electoral channels could crowd out the equally crucial task for workers of developing a strategy to resist union-busting and benefits cuts. These attacks will hit workers immediately, while the prospect of undoing them electorally remains months or years away.

Moreover, putting the struggle for workers' rights into the electoral arena also puts the fight on a plane where class politics becomes blurred and millions from big business can come to the aid of anti-labor politicians. For the Democrats, this is fine. Without doing much, they've managed to recapture the interest of their "base," which will now become engaged in a nearly two-year series of elections, culminating in the 2012 presidential elections.

Suppose that labor and the Democrats succeed with all of their electoral plans. Will a Democratic majority in the Wisconsin (or elsewhere) restore bargaining rights? Maybe. But it's not a foregone conclusion. Democratic mayors and governors are, like their Republican counterparts, the "management" that must discipline the public-sector workforce. Democratic governors like California's Jerry Brown and New York's Andrew Cuomo have made a point of wanting to "stand up" to public-sector unions.

And the Democratic Party itself is, at its heart, a business party. That's why the White House is so standoffish about the union-busting assault that is sweeping through the states. It's also why Democratic candidates promise labor-friendly policies such as the Employee Free Choice Act, but never get around to trying to pass them when they gain the majorities to do so.

For these reasons, the author Mike Davis rightly characterized the alliance between the Democratic Party and organized labor--even at the time of its heyday in the post-Second World War era--as "a barren marriage."

The uprising in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states may have helped to rekindle the romance between labor and the Democrats. But it unleashed something else as well: a sense of class solidarity and experience of direct action that will do more to invigorate labor and social movements than any election ever will.

Lance Selfa will participate in panel discussions on "The Left Debates the Democratic Party" and "Understanding and Responding to the Tea Party Threat" at the Left Forum in New York City on March 18-20 in New York. Find out more information at the Left Forum website.

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