Labor independence: Not much to do with a party label

labor indep

Some of the left in labor still seem to be stuck in the 1970s. It's surprising how shallow some criticisms from the left can be when it comes to the labor movement. You really have to be wearing some kind of blinders to argue that Richard Trumka is essentially saying the same thing today that George Meany and Lane Kirkland said in their day.

In preface, I have great respect for Working In These Times and the work they do. But a recent article by Mike Elk really seems to me to illustrate what is wrong with too much of the left's thinking on labor today.

In substance the argument goes something like: real political independence for labor hinges on making a clean break with the Democratic Party and willingness to withdraw almost all union support for Democratic candidates. Many in this mode go even further and argue that labor can only really be politically independent when they establish their own party.

But in the real world, labor political independence is far more than what candidate or party labor is supporting at a particular moment in time, place and circumstance. It is much more than labor not being critical enough of allies it disagrees with.

Labor's political independence is not some arrived at moment of truth, a singularity type "ah-ha" moment when labor declares its political independence by blasting the Democratic Party and severing all ties. Instead, it is a process that ebbs and flows in tune with the political realities of the moment.

Labor has been developing its recent political independence ever since John Sweeney defeated the old guard Cold War remnant leadership in the 1995 election for president of the AFL-CIO.

Evaluating labor's independence has to be firmly rooted in the reality of today's all-out right-wing and corporate political attack on unions and democracy. And it has to be rooted in the incredible mass upsurge and fightback of labor, highlighted by the ongoing actions in Madison Wis., Indianapolis, Ind., Columbus, Ohio, and many other battlegrounds across the country.

Labor has been building up its own independent political action network since the late 1990s. Early on, this took the form of encouraging union members to run for office, mostly for local positions, with some success. Remember labor's 2000 by 2000 campaign? Many of those union members elected in that period are still in office and still active in labor's electoral work. Many of these candidates and their campaign workers developed skills for election work that they are passing on to new generations of union members.

The process very much deepened in the 2006, 2008 and 2010 election cycles. Union political action more and more takes the form of working on campaigns out of union halls, instead of Democratic Party offices. This is important because it means that unions build their own activist lists and mobilization techniques. It means deepening ties with rank-and-file activists. It means that unions spend their election money on mobilizing and training members rather than just sending money and troops to the Democrats to organize. Increasingly, labor spends it money on their own phone banking systems and other tools for political work.

Further unions develop their own themes and issues in voter education and getting out the vote. As someone who has spent a good deal of time at this level of work in my union and in other, similar labor efforts over the past 20 years, I can say that what union members and leaders are learning is very much political independence. Talk about not having any illusions about the Democratic Party.

It is particularly bothersome that the article caricatures Richard Trumka as "talking loud and saying nothing." For sure, labor's independence is uneven. For sure, you can find examples of old thinking in some labor leadership. But Trumka? I don't think so.

Labor independence is not a thing in itself, isolated from other key issues of the class struggle. Take class unity. In the 2008 election Trumka took on racism and class unity in a way that hardly any Democratic candidate would ever even consider. I was at the United Steelworkers convention when Trumka made his impassioned pitch for unity in electing the first African American president in our history. Yes it was loud; more importantly it was profound and moved thousands of workers.

With that speech the AFL-CIO used the 2008 election as a teaching moment for all of labor. It became a moment that deepened labor's understanding of basic class unity issues that went far beyond just the election.

Can anyone seriously argue that class unity is not a critical element of developing working class political independence? Sure, this was in the context of a Democratic Party candidate. But comes the time when labor has helped build a broad enough labor and class based coalition, strong enough to actually elect a labor/progressive candidate outside the two-party system and contend for power, Trumka's speech will have been one of the key milestones in achieving the necessary political independence.

Lastly, let's get real about the actual electoral situation on the ground. Overall, the AFL-CIO has shown great political and tactical maturity in the face of the big business assault. No element of society has been more disappointed by the lack of support for key parts of a labor agenda like the Employee Free Choice Act, health care reform and some aspects of economic policy. But standing on the sidelines throwing pure and polished critical stones is not a workable alternative.

No, labor has to contend with the actual balance of power and put pressure where it can make a concrete difference. Sometimes in the class struggle you actually have to fight defensive battles. Sometimes aiming your fire at imperfect allies, rather than the real source of your troubles, just weakens the coalition and strengthens your enemy.

Labor today is championing the most progressive agenda it has put forward since the formation of the CIO. Actually building the strength to win it will take building a much larger labor movement and a much broader working-class-led coalition.

Labor's allies and labor partisans need to be fully onboard, to have any real influence.

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, the author of the article was misidentified. We regret the error.

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  • brother or sister hoodsportwriter. the path to a better world, socialism a more just society is long and arduous and we have many pitfalls to overcome. the general movement is in the positive direction now. so let's keep on keepin on. and yes we will have set backs after all we r up against the most powerful capitalist class the world has ever seen. wal mart exxon mobil general motors bank of america goldman sachs etc they will do u in for 5cents and hour in solidarity jim

    Posted by jim, 05/14/2011 3:13pm (5 years ago)

  • Great article, Scott. I couldn't agree more. Your analysis corresponds to my experience in the labor movement here in Michigan. I do think that we need to renew our efforts to persuade active union members/leaders to run for office. One of the problems here in Michigan is that the legislature is filled with business people who think unions are the problem. We have talented people in the labor movement who would make great candidates and, with the shifts occurring in public opinion, this is an opportune moment to get them elected. Keep up the good work!

    Posted by Mark, 05/14/2011 8:41am (5 years ago)

  • Seriously? Labor can have a political program separate from the Democrats rather than have their noses up the butt of the DNC all the time.

    If Labor cannot deliver on their ability to damage Democratic Party candidates they have no pull at all. Labor cannot "win" by itself but it can "lose" races for Democrats and must be willing to do so.

    In the final analysis organized labor has no overall plan on the national or local levels. It only reacts to the latest attack.

    A failure to plan is a plan for failure - and today labor is a failure on its way to worse failures.

    Posted by Hoodsport Writer, 05/13/2011 10:30pm (5 years ago)

  • right on scotty i can tell u from experience in the last 10 or 15 years labor has more and more ran it's own campaigns this is a process. when the march for civil rights with dr king took place in wash dc in 1963 meany said who appointed king leader of the negro people. contrast that to trumka (and others including leaders of the bldg trades ) in the last election. the fitters endorsed obama early in the 2008 primaries. marxism teaches us that the only constant is change and which direction r u moving. this may take some more time. we should never forget when bill foster and others tried to organize the steel workers in 1919 working with the then pretty backwards afl. yes the strike was smashed but it laid the ground work for the organization of the steeworkers union in 1937. and their r labor democrats blue dog democrats and liberal democrats. in solidarity jim

    Posted by jim, 05/13/2011 4:09pm (5 years ago)

  • Amen, amen. I don't know the author you're responding to, but most peopole with these "pure and simple" solutions haven't really been doing the work in the muddy trenches.

    The AFL-CIO today is miles above the old days, but it's uneven through the labor movement. A lot of the problem came from Taft-Hartley law of 1947, when unions were forced to set up separate PACS for politics. The people who handle that PAC money get pretty cozy with certain politicians, and they want to keep things the way they were. The fundamental democracy of the trade union movement does not necessarily extend to the PACs, unfortunately.

    All change is difficult, but the American labor movement is definitely heading in the right direction. We can cuss them for being too slow, or we can get on the team and help.
    --jim lane in Dallas

    Posted by jim lane, 05/13/2011 3:41pm (5 years ago)

  • @Mike Ely and Mike Elk - sorry for getting your names confused - but I have to say I'm intrigued by Mike Ely's comment. I would really like to hear about your experiences in the UMWA.

    @ Louis - Hey Louis old friend. I take it this is your leftwing version of "_______ (fill in the blank) said it, I believe it and that settles it!"

    @ FD - As I said things are of course uneven - my experience with union made literature in the past few campaigns is that they stress issues like EFCA, jobs and the economy, fair trade, protecting Social Security, stopping foreclosures etc and building up union voter turnout. And I might add even choosing which candidates to get out the vote for is based on independent judgement on how they will support labor's issues. I don't see union members being organized to support bluedogs...

    Posted by Scott Marshall, 05/12/2011 7:22pm (5 years ago)

  • Many successful labor parties started out inside other parties,e.g., the British Labor Party started as the Labour Representation Committee within the Liberal Party. It is a process (as someone used to say.)

    Posted by Jim Williams, 05/12/2011 5:28pm (5 years ago)

  • Brother Scott; up to a point I agree that Trumka isn't George "I never walked a picketline"Meany.
    However many of us rank & filers are less than enthusiastic about the Democratic Party's lack of support for EFCA, affirmative action, peace and it's domination by corporate bribes aka campaign funds.

    I was very glad to see the AFL-CIO participate with the Green Party and others in recent May Day events. This is certainly a step in the right direction. I was also happy to see the AFL-CIO decide to support Medicare for All. Another step in the right direction.

    As to a third party, well that is still not only my dream, but the dream of many trade unionists who are fed up with the betrayal of the Democratic Party and it's candidates.

    A lot of us will continue to support democrats that have proven themselves, but the pickings are very slim.

    Posted by Pancho Valdez, 05/12/2011 5:19pm (5 years ago)

  • You seem to have confused me (Mike Ely) with someone else (Mike Elk).

    As you may know, I am a former coal miner -- and my views on the UMWA leadership are deeply rooted in experience (including attempts to expel me from the union based on my communist politics).

    Posted by Mike Ely, 05/12/2011 3:33pm (5 years ago)

  • I pretty much agree with you Scott, but I empathize with Mike Ely as well. I think labor starting a 3rd party right now would give years of victory to the Republican/Tea Party minority. But I also think labor could and should be making more demands on the Democrats than they are.

    I have decided to stop giving to both national and local Democrat election campaigns. Because I have given in the past, my snail mail and email boxes are always filled with requests for more money. I respond to each with this statement: "I've grown weary of the Democratic Party taking labor for granted. So this year I'm only contributing to the election campaigns of truly pro-labor candidates. Thus all of my Campaign donations will be made through union PACs."

    Maybe if more folks did this, the Democratic Party would have a better understanding of who butters their bread.

    Posted by Rev. Paul White, 05/12/2011 2:21pm (5 years ago)

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