Labor leader defends Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid — but how will unions punish Democrats if they don’t?
Before heading to France to join international labor protests at the G20 meeting on Thursday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka made it clear that he was “deeply troubled about the possible direction” of the congressional “Super Committee” delegated to come up with a plan to reduce future deficits by November 23. Trumka said Democratic committee members’ widely reported offers to reduce deficits by including cuts in Medicare and other social insurance policies — so-called “entitlement” programs — would be “simply unacceptable.”
It was a strong, unequivocal policy statement — one Trumka said he had personally made to at least some members of the committee — but it is less clear what political strength the labor movement can and will use to back it up. On a October 31 conference call with reporters, Trumka said the AFL-CIO would immediately mobilize calls from a list of 700,000 activists and would temporarily suspend its campaign for job creation to focus on protecting social insurance programs if necessary. The AFL-CIO will work together with a couple dozen traditional political allies, from the NAACP to MoveOn, leafletting, making phone calls, possibly buying ads and taking other steps to keep Democrats in line.
But when I asked if he would urge AFL-CIO unions and their members not to endorse any member of Congress who voted for cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, he did equivocate.
“We don’t have any litmus test we apply on any single issue,” Trumka said. “But this is one of the most important issues out there. Quite frankly, it would be difficult for us to support candidates who actually voted for any kind of cuts in these progams.” State and local AFL-CIO units make endorsements for Congress, he noted, “but one of the recommendations we make will be that those who vote for cuts haven’t been friends of working people when we needed them to standing up for us.”
Trumka’s dance around the possibility of withholding an endorsement reflects the labor movement’s pragmatic approach to politics over several decades. Theoretically rewarding friends and punishing enemies, labor unions more often feel obliged to give endorsements in appreciation for even token support and try to remain a player in many races with uninspiring choices to preserve access and influence like other major lobbying forces in politics. It is understandable but ultimately debilitating.
With Republicans as right-wing and anti-union as they have become, pragmatic pressure to back Democrats increases. But many Democrats feel less need to rely on labor and thus more freedom to ignore or even trample on labor interests in many case, failing to recognize how strengthening the labor movement could boost the party’s political fortunes. Even in cases where unions are key to election of a member of Congress in his or her first or second term, officials collect and rely on funds from business much more as they forge a secure hold on their seats.
In the immediate tussle over potential cuts to social insurance, labor’s political options are complicated by President Obama’s signals that he, too, would be willing to include in a deficit plan cuts in Medicare and Medicaid (even Social Security as well last summer, until he backed off in September).
Unions, like many progrressive individuals and organizations, face a difficult juggling act over the coming year — fighting many Democrats’ often premature and unjustified concessions to right-wing Republicans while trying to maintain a credible message that generates enthusiasm about voting for unreliable Democrats.
Trumka’s argument with Democrats — and Republicans, except that they’re not listening — on the Super Committee is first of all on substance and principle. To the extent that deficits are reduced, the federal government should rely on progressive taxes on the rich along with reforms that cut costs but preserve benefits, such as establishing a public option in the health reform plan or negotiating drug prices under Medicare.
“Any person even loosely connected to reality can see that working families have already given up too much, while wealthy Americans have done all the taking,” he says. “Inequality is at historic levels….They’ve given their homes, they’ve give their jobs, they’ve given back their income. The middle class and lower class have already given. It’s time for the rich to give back a little bit so we can at least get back to balance.”
But he also has a very practical bit of advice. After praising Obama’s new emphasis on jobs, he said that the proposal of Democrats on the Super Committee “could muddy the waters, do nothing but confuse, and derail the progress we have made, and it could confuse a lot of people and negate a lot of good work on job creation.” In other words, the committee members’ proposal will undermine the small political gains Obama has made for his party and himself by emphasizing job proposals.
But the force of Trumka’s arguments will be much more convincing if wayward Democrats know that especially on key social insurance issues — their ace in the hole for decades against Republicans — the labor movement is willing to withhold support of politicians who abandon working people.
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.