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

Roger Bybee June 11, 2012

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 zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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