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Labor and the Democrats

What Does $400 Million Buy You These Days?

by DAVID MACARAY

“I worry that no matter how cynical I become, it’s never going to be enough.”

—Lily Tomlin

The way the Republican Party, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and American Enterprise Institute (not to mention the mainstream media) tell it, organized labor is able to get the Democrats to do pretty much anything it wants them to do because, as everybody knows, the Democrats are in labor’s pocket.  That’s how powerful America’s unions are. 

In fact, the word “powerful” is the media’s preferred adjective when referencing labor unions.  The “powerful teachers’ union” is used in practically every story about the decline in our education system, and the “powerful SEIU” is commonly used in any discussion of problems with the public sector.  But, oddly, you don’t see that adjective applied in describing truly powerful institutions, such as Wall Street or the Pentagon (“….yesterday, the powerful Pentagon reported….”).

No one is denying that organized labor hasn’t aligned itself with the Democratic party, or hasn’t been courting the Democrats since the New Deal days, or hasn’t sent phalanxes of labor lobbyists to Washington D.C. to do its bidding.  We’re all aware of labor’s history.  Indeed, so utterly beholden to the Democratic party are America’s unions, during the 2008 elections organized labor spent an estimated $400 million helping Democrats get elected.

Four-hundred million dollars.  Just think about how much money that  is.  Forget inflation for a moment and consider that the Lincoln Memorial cost $3 million, the Washington Monument cost $2 million, and the Panama Canal (where hundreds of engineers and thousands of construction workers toiled for 11 years, sawing an entire country in half to build a waterway) cost $375 million.  

Four-hundred million dollars on one election cycle.  What on God’s earth were they thinking?  Given the Democrats’ track record and the meager results of the last 25 years, what did labor think $400 million would buy them? 

For one thing, they were optimistically hoping for passage of the EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act), a law that would have given unions some breathing room by allowing  “card check.”  Not much to ask for, really—just permitting working folks who want to join a union to do so without being threatened or intimidated or out-waited by management.  But despite all the tough talk and saber-rattling, the EFCA campaign never really had a chance.  The Republicans (along with timid Democrats) made it clear they were willing to go to war to keep it from becoming law.

Another thing labor was hoping to gain from that $400 million “investment” was having some pro-union people appointed to the NLRB, a move that would serve as the first step in rectifying eight sorry years of neglect and hostility from the Bush administration.  But the Craig Becker nomination was torpedoed by a Republican filibuster.  First, they stalled for half a year, then they killed it, resulting in the 5-member NLRB still having three vacancies, which means there’s an enormous backlog of employee grievances still waiting to be heard.

When it comes to reputations and street creds, one could almost grudgingly accept organized labor’s reputation as a big, bad “muscle” outfit….if only it were true.  If it were true, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.  If labor were actually using those tough-guy methods they’re accused of using to help the average working stiff get ahead—contributing to the economy the way they did in the 1950s—we could almost explain it away as one more of those “ends justify the means” deals, and move on. 

But that’s not what’s happening.  Instead, labor is suffering the worst of both worlds.  On the one hand organized labor is being depicted as this voracious monolith that’s running roughshod over our frail economy, and on the other hand (the hand that reflects reality) unions are continuing to be chipped away, co-opted, and marginalized as never before. 

There are 22 right-to-work states in the country.  Federal labor laws continue to be systematically weakened by the courts.  While strikes used to be labor’s one reliable weapon, very few unions dare go on strike anymore for fear replacement workers will permanently take their jobs.  Membership rolls are stagnant, morale is down, internecine disputes are raging, and national leadership is fresh out of ideas.  Yet, the media still pretends to cringe in the face of the “powerful” AFL-CIO.

Has anyone considered the possibility that labor has been doing it all wrong?  That rather than going after the Democrats all this time, they should have been going after the Republicans?  The argument can be made that organized labor should have used that $400 million to buy off their enemies instead of using it to grease the palms of their nominal friends—friends who, alas, can’t (or won’t) get the job done.

Organized labor will very likely never live down its unsavory reputation.  They’re stuck with it.  It’s their historical legacy.  But if that’s the case—if they’re stuck with it—why bother continuing to fight a battle that’s all but unwinnable?  Instead, why not let it all hang out and seek to buy the support of the Republicans?  Don’t try and be coy; just buy it outright. 

Let the word leak out that any Republican senator who’s willing to vote labor’s way on a few key issues, will be given ten million dollars in campaign funds.  Wait….make that twenty million dollars.  Twenty million to change sides on a handful of votes. That’s how you spend your $400 million….not by pissing it away on mealy-mouthed Democrats.    

Because the pluralities have become razor-thin, half a dozen Republican senators on labor’s side would make all the difference in the world.  Six Republican senators in labor’s pocket would turn it into a brand new ballgame.  And how hard could it be to get six greedy, money-grubbing senators to change their votes for $20 million?  Hell, Joe Lieberman did it for free.

Anyone who objects to this—anyone who fusses over the fact that this tactic would be unethical or immoral or, more practically, too cumbersome to pull off—needs to be reminded that this is precisely how America’s defense industry has been conducting business for the last century.  Haven’t y’all been paying attention?

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net