America’s unions are contending with the harshest legislative attack on workers’ rights since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Labor strategists, their forces in decline, face an urgent question: What should unions do to defend their existence, and to provide workers more power at work and in politics?
The rise of the Tea Party right, recession-induced fiscal crises and Republican midterm victories – especially in many unionized Midwestern battleground states – set the stage. But Democrats’ failure to respond adequately to the economic crisis – in the areas of jobs, home foreclosures and financial regulation – enabled the ascent of the Republican right. And now Democratic governors and legislators, even in states like Massachusetts, have joined in the Republican attack on labor unions and workers – particularly public service workers.
Union members and leaders are scrambling to employ old and new defensive tactics, and at the same time struggling to find ways to take the offense. Their responses so far suggest part of what will need to be labor’s strategy: building broad coalitions, educating members and the public about economic issues and alternatives, nurturing grassroots initiatives, taking direct action and staking out an independence from the Democratic Party while also working to transform it.
Above all, unions need to make themselves a leading part of a broad working- and middle-class movement for economic democracy and equality, or “shared prosperity” – a movement to redefine the framework of political debate in order to win progressive victories. The United States needs “an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people – in the workplace and in political life,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a May 20 speech. And indeed, the labor movement does have a few (if rarely used) alternatives to endorsing unappealing Democrats.
Labor needs to withdraw support from Democrats who “stand aside,” as Trumka said, or worse, join “the wrecking crew.” And it should work with its coalition partners to run primary challenges in both Democratic and Republican primaries. In some instances, unions can support groups like the Working Families parties in New York, Connecticut, Oregon and other states, run their own candidates in nonpartisan races with run-off elections (like Chicago aldermanic races) and promote electoral reforms that weaken the two-party stranglehold. Without electoral reforms, the perennial left proposal to form a Labor Party is a losing proposition. Even with such reforms in place, building a political party on America’s weak union base would be difficult at best, especially without more intensive member education. Consider that 37 percent of Wisconsin union members voted for Republican Gov. Scott Walker – though most now probably regret doing so.
Progressives are rightfully unhappy with many elected Democrats: Ultimately they failed to take advantage of the financial crisis to shift the country’s political paradigm. But all would not be lost if labor and progressives can turn the right’s current, increasingly unpopular overreach – from denying workers bargaining rights to dismantling Medicare – into not just Democratic victories but an affirmation of social democratic values and programs.
At the federal level, corporations and the right have demonized labor’s Employee Free Choice Act (or EFCA, never a top Democratic priority), possibly energizing their anti-union drive in the states. In addition, they’ve targeted every appointment to the National Labor Relations Board and portrayed the board’s complaint against Boeing as a novel seizure of power over corporations, when Boeing had stated clearly that moving work from Seattle to South Carolina was retaliation for past strikes by unionized workers. Beyond challenging such attacks, unions are considering how to pass parts of EFCA, like increasing penalties for employer lawbreaking. And unions and allies have blocked other initiatives, including all 14 right-to-work proposals.
Meanwhile, from Maine and Florida to Michigan and Arizona, workers face a resurgent right that has used temporary fiscal problems as a rationale for cutting jobs, pay (mainly pensions), rights of public workers and public services.
While the richest 2 percent of the population take virtually all the new income generated, the share of those earnings that big corporations and the rich pay in taxes has declined – exacerbating the public fiscal crisis. And they want to pay even less, get more from government, avoid regulation and assume less responsibility for the general welfare, which they endanger. Even so, taxes on capital gains from rising stock values have reduced projected state deficits, such as in California. That’s a reminder that budget shortfalls might have dropped nearly twice as fast if capital gains were taxed like ordinary income.
State tax structures are so regressive that they create the crisis right-wingers use to dismantle the public sector. United for a Fair Economy (UFE) proposes flipping the state and local government tax codes at the halfway point – so that the top quintile of households would pay the same share of their income as the bottom does now. UFE calculates that would generate $490 billion annually across the nation, more than enough to solve state financial problems and make needed investments.
But the right does not want to fund the general welfare. It wants to turn government into a provider of police and legal services for private order and security (of property).
The mission to shrink democracy
The right’s mission to minimize government is also a mission to minimize democracy. At the same time that they have exploited post-Citizens United political contributions from corporations, Republicans in 13 states have promoted laws requiring voters to show official ID cards – a solution to a nonexistent problem that disproportionately affects the young, ethnic minorities and the poor – all populations that are least likely to vote Republican.
Unions, by contrast, foster economic and political democracy. As part of the “We Are Wisconsin” coalition, union members are working hard on a July vote to recall six Republican state senators who supported Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union legislation, austerity budget and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. They look forward to Democrats regaining control of the Senate and recalling Walker next year.
Equally important, the battles in Madison midwifed the birth of new local citizen organizations. Dane Grassroots Network, a strongly Democratic organization of former Obama campaign volunteers, now plays a key role in the recall elections. The protests unified a cross-section of state progressives; revived direct action as integral to political work; and stimulated unions to rely more on active members, not staff.
In his May speech, Trumka called on unions to use their money more for educating members and less for campaign contributions. Many are teaching members about the abuses of giant banks and corporations, often through direct action protests attempting to hold them accountable. The Service Employees union (SEIU), for example, launched its Fight for a Fair Economy campaign as a nationwide “comprehensive plan that tackles the fundamental imbalance of power in America and puts the needs of working families squarely at the top of our national priorities.” In Wisconsin, SEIU links the recalls and economic issues. At all levels, unions are fighting budget cuts and demanding legislators close corporate tax loopholes to finance social needs.
In Ohio, union members are among the 10,000 volunteers forming a new coalition – “We Are Ohio” – that in May collected nearly all of the 232,000 signatures needed to put a referendum on the November ballot to issue a “citizens’ veto” to a law pushed by Republican Gov. John Kasich and approved by the Ohio legislature on March 30. That law restricts collective bargaining, weakens unions, bans strikes and shifts pension and health care costs to public workers. In May, a Quinnipiac University poll showed state voters favoring repeal 54 to 36 percent.
Other Ohio unions are committed to another effort, Stand Up For Ohio. Seth Rosen of the Communication Workers union, describes it as an unprecedented attempt to build “a much broader movement” involving environmental, housing, public policy and other progressive groups in a coalition focused on budget and tax issues. Building support through house parties and public gatherings in the state’s many small cities, Rosen says, Stand Up For Ohio aims to become an issues-oriented coalition that “offers alternatives to [the Republicans’] job-killing, income-killing” austerity proposals.
Union strength comes first from members, but it also stems from support of progressive citizens who see organized labor fighting for them as well, which is what the emerging labor-community coalitions do. Unions and the AFL-CIO have always tried to incorporate some workers not under contracts, mainly retirees. They have also reached out recently to many legally marginalized workers – including domestic workers, day laborers, immigrants and sympathetic nonunion workers through Working America. The organization delivers a succinct progressive, worker-oriented political message to the doorstep (and email inbox) of more than 3 million members, moving them to vote much like union members – that is, much more progressive than most nonunion workers. There are still more opportunities to bring in former union members, freelancers, professional associations and other groups that aren’t formal unions to expand the labor movement.
Unions face real threats, but their resistance – starting in Wisconsin – has begun to show how they can build a bigger, more inclusive, more powerful grassroots movement of working and middle-class Americans for economic democracy.
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. 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 received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.