How To Elect Democrats Who Actually Answer To Workers

Why strikes and workplace power build electoral power.

Jane McAlevey

Educator Kelley Fisher leads striking Arizona teachers to the State Capitol during a Phoenix rally on April 26, 2018. Organizing power will be key to the Left's success in 2020. (Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Over the past decade in par­tic­u­lar, right-wing forces have dou­bled down on their mul­ti­fac­eted effort to rig the rules of gov­ern­men­tal elec­tions. Exam­ples include unlim­it­ed and unac­count­able spend­ing by the employ­er class, restric­tions on who is eli­gi­ble to be on the vot­er list itself, and ger­ry­man­der­ing galore.

The employer class has eviscerated workplace democracy over the past 40 years.They’ve got their sights set on civic elections.

Many of these tac­tics will feel famil­iar to work­ers, whose pow­er has been under­mined for decades by boss­es manip­u­lat­ing the sys­tem. Employ­ers rou­tine­ly ger­ry­man­der” work­places before union elec­tions, remov­ing pro-union work­ers from the eli­gi­ble vot­er pool with gim­micks that include dras­ti­cal­ly reduc­ing their hours or alleg­ing they have new­found man­age­ment duties.

At times it’s bla­tant­ly obvi­ous that the right-wing elec­tion­eers are bor­row­ing straight from the union-bust­ing play­book. In blue-state Mass­a­chu­setts, vot­ers statewide got a taste of one of the most effec­tive tools in the union avoid­ance indus­try, cap­tive audi­ence meet­ings, where work­ers are forced to sit through anti-union pre­sen­ta­tions as a con­di­tion of work. Hos­pi­tal boss­es went to such extremes to defeat a Novem­ber 2018 bal­lot ini­tia­tive to secure safe patient lim­its for nurs­es that they forced patients and fam­i­lies enter­ing emer­gency rooms, check­ing in for surgery, or under­go­ing any pro­ce­dure to sit through brief­ing ses­sions where they were told that vot­ing no” on the ini­tia­tive was the only way to ensure the hos­pi­tal or clin­ic would remain open. (The boss­es won.)

The employ­er class has evis­cer­at­ed work­place democ­ra­cy over the past 40 years. Using many of the same weapons, they’ve got their sights set on civic elec­tions. To pre­serve democ­ra­cy and rebuild work­ing-class pow­er requires a key tac­tic revived in 2018, in the nick of time: the all-out strike.

Strikes are a unique­ly pow­er­ful form of the polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion required to pre­pare work­ers to pull the levers in the vot­ing booth because they clar­i­fy the most impor­tant polit­i­cal les­son urgent­ly need­ed today: There are only two sides, the own­ers and the rest of us. Unions that still win great con­tracts — which gen­er­al­ly requires their hav­ing a cred­i­ble strike threat — can point the way, as edu­ca­tors did ear­li­er in 2018 from West Vir­ginia to Okla­homa to Ari­zona and beyond. The #Red4Ed move­ment led to unprece­dent­ed num­bers of edu­ca­tors run­ning for office and win­ning, and made sup­port for pub­lic edu­ca­tion a key issue up and down the bal­lot. In Ari­zona, the move­ment sound­ly defeat­ed a Koch Broth­ers-backed ini­tia­tive to expand pri­vate-school vouch­ers. This sug­gests that to build effec­tive polit­i­cal oper­a­tions, unions should under­stand that more strikes are key to win­ning elec­tions, not just good contracts.

Unions will also need to get them­selves out of the mire of var­i­ous dead-end debates around elec­tions. For one, we can sim­ply ignore the false bina­ry of whether we need to focus either on reg­is­ter­ing and turn­ing out the new demo­graph­ic majori­ties — mil­len­ni­als and peo­ple of col­or — or on recov­er­ing the vot­ers we’ve lost. We can — and, to win real pol­i­cy changes post-elec­tion, must—do both.

Then there’s the debate about what kind of can­di­dates labor should endorse. Most unions do the exact oppo­site of what the work­ing class needs, by sit­ting out the pri­maries and endors­ing in the gen­er­al elec­tion, leav­ing work­ers to vote between the less­er of two gen­er­al­ly use­less can­di­dates (decreas­ing rather than increas­ing turnout). This is because there’s a revolv­ing door between the polit­i­cal staff of unions and the con­sul­tant indus­tri­al com­plex that runs Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty elec­toral strat­e­gy, result­ing in out­sized influ­ence by par­ty lead­ers whose incli­na­tion is always to defend their own in elec­tive office. If unions do par­tic­i­pate in the pri­maries, they endorse the incum­bent. To name one obvi­ous exam­ple, Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez received zero union endorse­ments against estab­lish­ment Demo­c­rat Joe Crow­ley. Nuff said.

Endors­ing can­di­dates who raise work­ers’ expec­ta­tions can best be accom­plished by democ­ra­tiz­ing the elec­toral endorse­ment process in every union. Once you sur­mount the chal­lenge of get­ting those in con­trol to share pow­er, open­ing the endorse­ment process isn’t dif­fi­cult on a tech­ni­cal lev­el — you just hold a vote. It’s also cru­cial to unions sur­viv­ing in the post-Janus cli­mate: The more work­ers are engaged in mak­ing real deci­sions in their unions, the more own­er­ship they take, and the high­er the per­cent­age of work­ers who under­stand why mem­ber­ship matters.

When I ran the elec­toral endorse­ment process of the Neva­da SEIU (where, inci­den­tal­ly, unions have direct­ly led to the state turn­ing blue), we let can­di­dates know that to even be con­sid­ered, they must do far more than have a lack­ey in their offices fill in a union ques­tion­naire. At the least, they had to attend a forum open to all work­ers. Mak­ing it a con­di­tion of endorse­ment that can­di­dates take part in pro-union actions would go even fur­ther to assess whether they will actu­al­ly pub­licly stand with work­ers in strug­gle, not pri­vate­ly promise and for­get the com­mit­ment after Elec­tion Day.

To hold pol­i­cy mak­ers account­able, work­ers must be able to build fight­ing orga­ni­za­tions in which work­ers, not full-time staffs in sealed-off polit­i­cal depart­ments, call the endorse­ment shots. For the work­ing class to get out from under decades of aus­ter­i­ty, cli­mate change, union-bust­ing and more, work­ers need to have the pow­er to force politi­cians to make the pol­i­cy changes need­ed at work and in their com­mu­ni­ties. That requires build­ing super­ma­jor­i­ty par­tic­i­pa­tion, forg­ing high uni­ty and sol­i­dar­i­ty among the ranks — in short, devel­op­ing the same capac­i­ty required for an effec­tive strike. The soon­er we estab­lish union democ­ra­cy, the soon­er work­ers will get to pull the lever for politi­cians com­mit­ted to pro-work­ing-class poli­cies, not mere­ly win­ning their election.

Jane McAlevey is an orga­niz­er, author and schol­ar, and she’s cur­rent­ly writ­ing a book about unions slat­ed for release this fall from Ecco/​HarperCollins.
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