Look to Rhode Island for How to Target Anti-Labor Democrats

Mike Elk

The state’s labor movement did something about unfriendly Dems

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Yesterday, during a UE union rally here outside Morgan Stanley’s office, I heard a speaker ask the crowd, The Republicans think you all aren’t motivated enough to vote for Democrats this year. You all are motivated to vote for the Democrats right?”

The crowd’s response contained plenty of snickers.

The labor movement finds itself once again in the difficult position of defending Democratic politicians who have done little to pass labor law reform and create jobs. The labor movement finds itself endorsing Democratic candidates such as Zack Space (D-Ohio), who voted against the healthcare reform bill. Our goal obviously is to have a majority for Speaker Pelosi next year,” Jon Youngdahl, political director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) told the New York Times Steven Greenhouse. That’s driving a lot of decisions.”

It didn’t have to be this way.

After many Democrats betrayed unions on labor law, healthcare, and a host of other issues, labor leaders such as Richard Trumka vowed to run strong primary challenges against these politicians. Outside of the high-profile primary challenge to Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln, which labor decided to pursue only after it became clear she couldn’t win her general election, few serious primary challenges to anti-labor Democrats emerged.

This occurred as a result of the labor movement’s failure to plan far enough in advance to recruit staff and fundraise for serious primary challenges. Pittsburgh AFL-CIO President Jack Shea threatened a primary run against Congressman Jack Altmire, who voted against healthcare reform, but the deadline for filing his candidacy had already passed. The Working Families Party threatened to field a candidate against upstate New York Congressman Michael Acuri, who also voted against healthcare reform, but they never were able to recruit a candidate.

Likewise, the SEIU threatened to start a third party in North Carolina to challenge anti-labor democrats, but the effort never got off the ground. While labor ran a great primary against Blanche Lincoln, she ultimately prevailed.

But in Rhode Island, the labor movement was able to do what it couldn’t do elsewhere: unseat incumbent Democrats who voted against the interests of union members. Working Rhode Island - a coalition of Change to Win unions, AFL CIO unions, and independent unions - targeted six anti-labor Democratic State legislators (a large number since the RI State House has only 75 members) who as members of the Rhode Island House played key roles in passing a bill that cut public employee’s pensions and teacher pay. The measure to pass the pension cuts passed by only three votes, and these six members were crucial to passing it.

On primary day last week, Rhode Island’s labor movement was successful in knocking off five of the six targeted candidates. Working Rhode Island worked to recruit, train, staff, and fundraise for the primary challengers, many of whom were union members. They defeated State House Deputy Majority Leader, Rep. Al Gemma, State Rep. Maryann- Shallcross-Smit, State Rep. Michael Rice, State Rep. David Caprio, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee (and brother of the Democratic nominee for Rhode Island governor, Frank Caprio), and State Rep. Doug Gablinske, chairman of the House Finance Education Committee.

As a result of these efforts to defeat these anti-labor candidates in a primary, it’s unclear whether the conservative Democratic Speaker of the Rhode Island House, Gordon Fox, will be re-elected as Speaker with the new makeup of the Rhode Island State House. In short, by fielding primary challenges to anti-labor Democrats, Democrats were able to change the political makeup of the Rhode Island State House and offer union members candidates they were enthusiastic to vote for.

I think we have to do this nationwide. I think we have to challenge them everywhere we go, or otherwise we are never going to get our agenda.” says Rhode Island NEA Political Director Patrick Crowley Union members are going to sit on the sideline unless we recruit candidates and get them motivated to turn out. What the labor movement did in Rhode Island sends a good message to the rest of the labor movement that it is possible to primary anti-labor Democrats.”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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