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In 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama made a big promise to labor advocates, saying, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States.” And yet, in labor’s failed effort to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for his move to strip government unions of their collective bargaining rights, Obama did just about nothing.
It is just the latest betrayal Obama and the Democratic Party have dealt to organized labor. The Employee Free Choice Act, which Obama supported as a Senator, a bill that would make organizing easier, was not brought to vote when the Democrats controlled Capital Hill. In April’s Summit of the Americas, Obama cleared the way for a free trade agreement with Colombia, even though he said in a presidential debate with Sen. John McCain that he wouldn’t do so until the Colombian government addressed the issue of violence against labor activists (it hasn’t, American labor groups say).
A campaign aide for Obama bragged on Twitter about the president’s chilly relationship with teachers’ unions, and let’s not forget that Davis Guggenheim, who directed a pro-Obama documentary and said that the president had “too many accomplishments,” also made the film, “Waiting for Superman,” an anti-union, schools’ privatization movie.
And as for Obama’s famed auto bailout, while the right claims it was a giveaway for workers, the fact is, as Bloomberg News describes, the United Auto Workers “gave up thousands of jobs and billions in benefits to save the U.S. auto industry.” In the fall of 2009, UAW members rejected a concessionary contract reached with Ford just days before the company revealed quarterly earnings showing the company wasn’t wobbling but rather profiting.
There has been no real significant victory for American unions on a federal level since Obama became president, and yet the AFL-CIO endorsed him in March. Many unions are gearing up this election season to re-elect the main and put more Democrats in the Congress. What that means is that unions have little time and money to anything else.
As Doug Henwood wrote, “Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats—$45 million of it this year alone…What do they have to show for it? Imagine if they’d spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere.”
It’s all part of sad, abusive relationship, with labor playing the victim, making all the excuses a battered wife makes when her friends try to get her to leave her violent husband. “Obama will be better in the second term” (“He can change”), “Obama’s decision was strategic” (“He didn’t mean it”), “The Democrats still side with labor on core issues” (“There’s still some good in him”) and “We can’t fight these battles without allies in the government” (“I can’t survive on my own”).
Things aren’t much better at the state level. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, already being talked about as a presidential contender in 2016, ran on a platform against the unions, and was still able to get the endorsement of the labor-backed Working Families Party. He has come through on his promise by enacting pension reforms and forcing concessions out of the major state unions, all with the help, as the New York Times recently reported, with the business-minded building trades unions.
Union members who are loyal the Democratic Party insist that these people are still better than Republicans like Chris Christie and Scott Walker. That is true only a technical sense. Walker and Christie want to practically destroy unions, while Cuomo wants to merely cripple their power, but keep them alive just enough so he can use them as a campaign ATM.
There’s nostalgia among labor leaders about the days when there was a strong link in the 1970s between labor and Democrats, when 20 percent of workers carried a union card. Things have changed, as Bill Clinton made a concerted effort to bring the party closer to values of socially liberal business leaders. But there seems to be a lack of understanding among many union leaders that in a world where corporations and Wall Street contribute handsomely to both parties very few politicians truly has anything to gain by enacting union-friendly labor laws.
What keeps the vicious cycle going? Part of it is the fact that labor leaders want to stay in power, and to do that they need to be reelected. Appearing side-by-side with Senators and Governors gives members the illusion of political power, and when unions win a small victory they can credit it with the fact that the union endorsed so-and-so, and had union members knocking on doors to get Democrat XYZ elected.
This is why, for example, the showdown in Wisconsin unfolded the way it did. When Governor Walker first declared his offensive against public sector unions, rank-and-file workers didn’t start meeting with politicians, they occupied the state house and crippled the government, using mass mobilization to flex actual political power.
The early days of the Wisconsin occupation acknowledged that union members, facing a final push by capital to cleanse the economy of the only vehicle for working-class advancement in this country, were taking off the kiddy gloves of relying on Democrats to save the day and organize so that workers could take matters into their own hands. Union bosses put a stop to that, putting the energy back into the game of Democratic politics. Result: Failure.
The Madison sit-in energy came up again in the early days of Occupy Wall Street with workers joining protesters in the various encampments, but right now those alliances are thinning. Few unions brought out their rank-and-file to participate in the May Day demonstration in Manhattan put together by immigrant rights activists and OWS. Much of this has to do with the upcoming election. “With the election coming up that’s going to be pull resources from everything that’s not Democratic related,” said Communications Workers of America member and OWS supporter Amy Muldoon. “I think it’s the allocation of [union] resources. Where is money going? Where are members are being directed: going door to door [for the Democrats] or going to Zuccotti Park?”
But there is a sign of hope. On May Day, rank-and-file workers participated in “99 Pickets” around the city. In one case, a group of workers at the Strand Bookstore working with OWS activists took their message to picket line after voting down a concessionary pact reached by their union leader and the boss.
As labor activists and OWS supporter Harrison Magee put it, there is a lot of rancor among workers who are willing to work outside the traditional framework, and worker groups that are not unions, such as the Restaurant Opportunities Center, are mobilizing workers in a grassroots way. These horizontal models don’t produce an elected president and an army of loyal union bureaucrats who end up aligning with the Democrats.
“We need to occupy unions in a way,” Magee said.
Ari Paul is a contributor to Free Speech Radio News and the Indypendent. His articles have also appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, Z Magazine and The American Prospect.