Time For Unions to Give the Democratic Party an Ultimatum

Money spent on organizing is always well spent. You can’t say the same about political donations.

Hamilton Nolan September 8, 2020

Photo by Fredric J. Brown/ AFP via Getty

Yes­ter­day, on Labor Day, Joe Biden did an online event with AFL-CIO pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka to talk up unions. At this point in his polit­i­cal career, Biden can do these things in his sleep. His well rehearsed grab bag of pro-union lines (”My uncle in Scran­ton, Uncle Ed, used to say, Joe, you’re labor from belt buck­le to shoe sole’”) flow out eas­i­ly. The ques­tion for America’s union mem­bers is whether any­thing tan­gi­ble will flow back to us if Biden is elect­ed, or if we will — as has hap­pened in pre­vi­ous Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tions — have to sat­is­fy our­selves with pats on the head and White House photo-ops. 

Though the share of union vot­ers that vote Demo­c­ra­t­ic fluc­tu­ates, the finan­cial sup­port that major unions offer to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty does not. In 2016, labor unions in total spent well over $100 mil­lion back­ing Hillary Clin­ton, includ­ing $15 mil­lion from the AFL-CIO (to super PACs) and close to $20 mil­lion each from the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion and the SEIU. This elec­tion, the spend­ing is even more intense. The SEIU alone has pledged to spend $150 mil­lion to elect the Demo­c­ra­t­ic candidate. 

All of the mon­ey that unions spend on pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates comes from the pock­ets of work­ing peo­ple. It is pre­cious. A hedge fund man­ag­er would cer­tain­ly not make a nine-fig­ure invest­ment with­out the knowl­edge that he would earn a good return; nei­ther should jan­i­tors and nurs­es. For unions, every dol­lar that is donat­ed to politi­cians is a dol­lar that is not spent on orga­niz­ing new union mem­bers. And a dol­lar spent on orga­niz­ing new union mem­bers is always a good invest­ment — par­tic­u­lar­ly when the share of Amer­i­cans who are union mem­bers has fall­en to one in ten, and is still falling. New orga­niz­ing is an exis­ten­tial issue for unions: They will either turn around their long mem­ber­ship decline, or they will slow­ly die. So it is impor­tant that polit­i­cal spend­ing by unions always be con­sid­ered in con­text. Before every dona­tion, we should ask, Is this a bet­ter use of this mon­ey than hir­ing more union orga­niz­ers, to give more work­ing peo­ple the pro­tec­tion of a union?” 

Let us pause here to acknowl­edge the obvi­ous: The Repub­li­can Par­ty wants to erad­i­cate unions from exis­tence, and the Democ­rats do not. It will always be in the inter­est of labor unions to see to it that Repub­li­cans do not have con­trol of law­mak­ing, from the local to the nation­al lev­el. One of the biggest bar­ri­ers to new union orga­niz­ing are anti-union labor laws and hos­tile gov­ern­ment enforce­ment agen­cies, and chang­ing those things is part of reviv­ing unions. I do not pro­pose that unions give up on polit­i­cal influ­ence. I pro­pose instead that unions be smarter about spend­ing their mem­bers’ mon­ey in a way that grows and expands that influ­ence in the long term. 

Writ­ing checks to the DNC is not the only way of exert­ing polit­i­cal influ­ence. In fact, it is a bad way. Your influ­ence lasts only for the cur­rent elec­tion cycle, and its con­tin­u­ance is premised on con­tin­ued dona­tions, and fur­ther­more, if your can­di­date los­es, you get noth­ing. It is vital that not only unions but also the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty itself rec­og­nize that grow­ing union mem­ber­ship is a direct ben­e­fit to Demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal goals, apart from any polit­i­cal dona­tions. Strong unions on their own can help achieve eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty, racial equal­i­ty, work­place safe­ty, and oth­er things that are part of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­form. They are the only tool that allows work­ing peo­ple to build pow­er on their own, with­out hav­ing to ask for that pow­er to be appor­tioned by elect­ed officials. 

And let’s talk about polit­i­cal pow­er and elec­tions. A strong union is an army for a cho­sen polit­i­cal can­di­date. Union mem­bers can phone bank and knock on doors and wave signs and do every­thing that a polit­i­cal dona­tion can do, besides buy­ing infi­nite attack ads. Good unions are pow­er­ful not just because they can raise funds, but because they can mobi­lize a pla­toon of high­ly moti­vat­ed peo­ple to pur­sue polit­i­cal actions. The labor movement’s mod­ern tilt towards polit­i­cal spend­ing and away from orga­niz­ing, as embod­ied by the AFL-CIO’s bud­getary choic­es, have been a failed exper­i­ment. Union den­si­ty con­tin­ues to fall, Repub­li­cans are in con­trol, and even when Democ­rats did have pow­er, polit­i­cal gains for unions were almost nonexistent. 

Many in the labor move­ment are still bit­ter about the fail­ure of Barack Oba­ma to pass the Employ­ee Free Choice Act — which would have made union orga­niz­ing eas­i­er, and which was labor’s top leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ty — between 2008 and 2010, when the Democ­rats had both Con­gress and the White House. Despite heavy spend­ing to get Oba­ma elect­ed, unions were not ulti­mate­ly a top pri­or­i­ty. We do not have to repeat this deba­cle again. 

This time around, the bill most desired by orga­nized labor is the PRO Act, a set of labor reforms that would amount to the most pro­gres­sive change in labor law in more than a half cen­tu­ry. (The PRO Act would be far more mean­ing­ful than what Oba­ma failed to pass). Biden, and the rest of the Democ­rats, have sworn to pass it if giv­en the chance. Fine. Since unions are already ful­ly invest­ed in 2020, they should make a sim­ple bar­gain: If the PRO Act is not signed into law by the 2022 midterms, they will not donate any mon­ey to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date in 2024. Rather, they will accept that dona­tions have not achieved the desired results, and spend that mon­ey instead on union organizing. 

This does not mean ced­ing pow­er to Repub­li­cans. Repub­li­cans have won their cur­rent pow­er as unions have donat­ed hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to Democ­rats! The results of this exper­i­ment are in! Orga­nized labor should stop being the dumb mon­ey” in the polit­i­cal invest­ing game. Checks writ­ten to direct­ly sup­port pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates are a bet that may offer a pal­try pay­out, or result in a total loss. But mon­ey spent on orga­niz­ing is always well spent. It gives more work­ing peo­ple the pro­tec­tion of a union. It can direct­ly achieve the sort of mate­r­i­al gains that Democ­rats promise to leg­is­late sec­ond­hand. It builds a union army that can itself be deployed in place of polit­i­cal dona­tions. And, most cru­cial­ly, max­i­miz­ing the num­ber of peo­ple who get to expe­ri­ence union cam­paigns them­selves is one of the only real tools for spread­ing class con­scious­ness and actu­al­ly chang­ing the nature of the elec­torate itself, to move towards a nation in which a can­di­date like Bernie Sanders might one day be able to win a major­i­ty of votes.

New union orga­niz­ing is an invest­ment in per­son­al pow­er, polit­i­cal pow­er, the present, and the future. It is inher­ent­ly an invest­ment in not just the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but in the pow­er to cre­ate a bet­ter Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Had unions spent their mon­ey over the past sev­er­al pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycles on orga­niz­ing rather than on polit­i­cal dona­tions, we would have hun­dreds of thou­sands more union mem­bers than we have today — and we would not have any few­er nation­al leg­isla­tive achieve­ments. That would be impossible. 


Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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