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Working In These Times

Monday, Jun 11, 2012, 2:02 pm

Post-Recall, Unions Look to Re-Define Relationship with the Democratic Party

BY Roger Bybee

Tuesday’s recall election in Wisconsin is provoking a profound re-thinking of labor’s relationship to the Democratic Party and, most immediately, how labor can survive as a vocal and visible force even as Scott Walker and his allies seek to permanently submerge it under water.

Long-time activist Tom Hayden astutely laid out the stakes that labor now faces:

It is a true institutional crisis for labor and the Democrats, the greatest since the conflicts of the 1960s.The combination of Citizens United, a pro-corporate Supreme Court, and the Tea Party grip on Congress and many state houses, means that the crucial base of the Democratic Party's campaign funding - organized labor - is facing extinction, with no comparable alternative in sight.

The recall’s results are bound to reinforce the harshly anti-labor, “secessionist” outlook  (see here, here, and here) of America’s increasingly globalized ruling class. Except for relatively few moments of intense popular mobilization as at the height of the Occupy movement, the pressure exerted on Obama has come almost unceasingly from Corporate America and their allies on the Right.

In Wisconsin, Walker’s victory threatens to cement a permanent, self-perpetuating Republican majority. Given the heavy and highly-productive investments made thus far by Corporate America and the Right in Wisconsin, Walker and his minions in the legislature can count on a vast stream of campaign contributions providing an overwhelming financial advantage in the fall elections.

Further, the Democrats have apparently won a majority in the state Senate, but a partisan re-districting plan enacted by the Republicans in secret will almost surely restore Republican power in both houses. Democrats have won the last five presidential elections in Wisconsin by a 53.4 percent margin, but state Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee), an expert on re-districting, says the GOP plan—which would go into effect next year—would establish between 57 and 59 safe Republican seats in the 99-member State Assembly, with only 40 to 42 safe Democratic seats. 

These advantages will open the way for further restrictions on unions, aimed at minimizing their membership and reducing their political power as the central countervailing force to the agenda of corporations. “Right-to-work” legislation looming (see here and here) in Wisconsin would nearly eliminate unions as a significant political force.

Labor provides substantial funding, a crucial base of volunteers, and roughly 40% or more of Democratic votes in the state. Wisconsin state Senate President Scott Fitzgerald openly admitted on Fox TV in March 2011 the Republicans’ political motives in seeking to weaken labor unions and deplete their treasuries: “If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much difficult, much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.” 

As it turns out, even after the recall’s defeat, Obama looks very strong in the state, with a seven-point edge over Mitt Romney. But the recall’s defeat—and the seeming indifference of the president and his party to it—calls into question labor’s place in the Democratic Party.

“We’ve got to come to grips with labor’s disastrous role in the Democratic Party,” says Chris Townsend, political director of the united Electrical Radio, and Machine Workers. “The Democrats are getting our money and our votes and our support, but what are we getting in return? This is another of the alarm bells sounding about the Democratic Party, demanding action ASAP.”

In the Wisconsin case, the Democratic National Committee provided no extra funds and President Obama studiously avoided the state, doing little more than issuing a tweet in support of Democratic candidate Tom Barrett. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus taunted Obama, who spoke in neighboring Minnesota last week: “He couldn’t drive 15 miles and show his face here? There are going to be a lot of Democrats in Wisconsin who are going to be pretty disappointed with their president who did not come in and help out.”

Progressive journalist Dave Lindorff, after laying out the extensive efforts by labor and progressives to garner 47% of the vote despite being vastly out-spent, underscored the significance of Obama’s decision to distance himself from labor:

What they lacked was any significant support from the Democratic Party and the party’s standard-bearer, President Barack Obama — the man who as candidate back in 2008, when he won Wisconsin, promised to put on a pair of “comfortable shoes” and to “walk the picket line” with struggling workers everywhere.

Maddening as Obama is, however, with Mitt Romney supporting a federal right-to-work law and the brazenly inhumane Paul Ryan budget, unions nonetheless need to fight for Obama’s reelection. Yet labor must commit itself more seriously than ever to re-negotiating its relationship with Democrats and revamping its capacity to mobilize its members for independent grassroots activity.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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