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A worker listens to members of SEIU Local 1 speak at a rally in downtown Chicago on Sept. 28, 2011. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Which Side Are You On?

Disenchanted with the Democratic Party, unions threaten secession in 2012.

BY David Moberg

Some want to focus on winning elections. Others see elections as part of building a new movement. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka insists both strategies are compatible.

As labor unions plan their political work for this election year, they face two uncomfortable truths:

First, from the state to the national levels, Republicans – relying on both a huge influx of money unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling and extreme attack ad nastiness – have demonstrated their intensified determination to dismantle the labor movement, workers’ rights and government programs, policies and institutions critical for the economic security and democratic voice of the 99% of Americans.

Second, many working people – including many union members and even union leaders – are disappointed with the inability of the Democrats, including President Obama, to fight for progressive policies and challenge the unified and reactionary Right.

“I wish President Obama had governed consistent with his [more populist] rhetoric in the State of the Union address,” says Bob Master, Communications Workers of America (CWA)’s District 1 Legislative-Political Coordinator and Working Families Party co-chair in New York, reflecting widely shared labor movement sentiments. “Notwithstanding all our disappointment with the Obama presidency, it’s clear that the clowns on the Republican side would be devastating to working people. But we’re anticipating a tougher challenge motivating people because there is a lot of disappointment and letdown.”

Dashed hopes, even if Republicans deserve most of the blame, depressed the 2010 turnout of Obama’s 2008 supporters, while Tea Party resentment boosted votes for Republicans as they took control of the House and many state governments. That’s still a hurdle. “There’s just not the enthusiasm, excitement, electricity about the presidential race or congressional races in a lot of states. Overall, it’s nowhere like 2008,” says Joseph Hansen, international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. “That’s labor’s hardest problem.”

Independence days?

Democrats and Obama need unions – one of the few credible Democratic-leaning persuaders with blue-collar workers – to minimize the Republican advantage among moderate-income white workers with less than a college degree, a frustrated demographic that nonetheless generally shares many progressive populist economic views.

Union leaders have so far expressed their own frustration with Obama and his party in various ways, such as withholding endorsements of previously labor-backed candidates (perhaps even of Obama, says machinists union spokesman Rick Sloan); withholding money (last year the politically active, well-heeled firefighters union announced it would no longer contribute to any federal candidates, then revised plans recently to contribute to select labor champions); or not attending the Democratic national convention this year (partly because it will be in anti-union North Carolina).

Most unions also plan to revise their recent strategy to strengthen the labor movement’s political influence and, as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka frequently insists, its “independence.” But it is now more difficult than ever for labor to find Republicans to support as an alternative to the Democratic Party. The limited Working Families Party model of cross-endorsing labor-friendly Democrats is right now the biggest left-wing hope for a labor or progressive party.

“Independence is about building our structure, about getting working people to mobilize, whether they’re union members or not, and talk about differences out there. It’s supporting people who are friends,” Trumka told In These Times in late January. “It’s about year-round mobilization that can transition quickly from electoral politics to advocacy to accountability. Those [politicians] that are real friends will get more attention from us; our marginal friends will get less attention; obviously those that aren’t friends will get the opposite kind of attention.

“It’s not about the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. It’s about workers having an independent voice in a system where people can drop in $5 or $6 million at the drop of a hat to alter a presidential race. It’s about us having that independent voice and talking to workers, union and nonunion workers.”

Proposals to create a more potent and independent labor movement – though not universally supported by union leaders – include:

• Full-time politics. In response to unionists’ ire at politicians taking labor’s election-time money, and then turning their backs when making decisions, Trumka and others want the AFL-CIO political apparatus to mobilize workers and allies year-round to elect candidates and then to make sure they deliver on policy. United Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard insists such a year-round organization – regularly proposed over the past 15 years but never fully implemented – must be a “grassroots, bottom-up” effort that can take the offense politically. And it must focus on issues and nonelectoral actions as much as candidates and voting, says Wisconsin SEIU leader Bruce Colburn. Ultimately, Master says, the current top priority of electing the president isn’t enough.

• Mobilizing all workers. Union members are more likely to vote and cast ballots for labor-backed candidates than otherwise similar nonunion workers. To increase union influence, strategists agree that they should reach out more to the unorganized working class. But they don’t always know how to do it.

The 3 million-member Working America affiliate of the AFL-CIO doesn’t only influence nonunion workers (mainly suburban politically moderate independents). In some areas, it is also becoming a cohesive, dues-paying, direct action, issue-oriented community organization in support of workers’ rights – and an important way to expand labor’s political power.

After the Citizens United decision, which the AFL-CIO supported, unions can spend their money more freely on politically educating nonmembers. The AFL-CIO has set up its own Super PAC – Workers’ Voice, now with a modest $3.7 million – to help with that task. But the PAC must overcome skepticism from some union leaders.

• A broader movement with a bigger message. Unions in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states fighting antiworker Republican governors have generated feisty community-labor coalitions at both state and local levels. In doing so, they have learned that labor often has to loosen its control over organizations to gain scale, says Midwest CWA Vice President Seth Rosen.

Many strategists worried that this statewide work might distract from normal political work. But recent statewide fights, local union leaders conclude, are ultimately likely to strengthen labor politically. And Hansen, who also chairs the labor federation Change To Win, wants to expand the state fight model of cooperation among CTW, the AFL-CIO and the National Education Association.

Building a movement, not a union

Other leaders draw inspiration from the Occupy movement and its message of the 99% resisting domination by the 1%. CWA President Larry Cohen says that unions “must build something deeper, do movement-building for the long haul, not just for this election. … Workers want to hit the streets, not just the ballot box. They want us to take on the fight for a democracy for the 21st century and for economic justice.”

Within the labor movement and within individual unions, like SEIU, strategists disagree.

Some want to focus on winning elections, especially for president. Others see elections as part of building a new movement. “Win or lose,” Rosen says, “we have to build a movement.” Trumka insists both strategies are compatible.

Likewise, some leaders prefer a tried-and-true labor message for 2012 – “good jobs, no cuts, fair taxes,” as summed up by SEIU National Political Director Brandon Davis. Others advocate a more ambitious challenge to the power of big corporations and financial capital. Working America Executive Director Karen Nussbaum says this is an increasingly popular choice among her members.

If labor can expand its horizons, as many leaders, despite their frustrations, seem inclined to do, the political prospects for this fall and beyond are brighter than they now seem.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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