Union people regularly complain about how the Democratic Party isn’t doing enough to assist or support organized labor. While Democrats continue to receive tens of millions of dollars in labor contributions, when it comes time to show some genuine patronage and go out on a limb for the unions, they tend to disappoint. Put more bluntly: When the opportunity presents itself to stand tall as unabashedly “pro-labor,” they run for cover.
Apparently, Democrats believe they have organized labor exactly where they want it, as unconditionally loyal and “locked-up” as the African-American vote. It’s the Party’s view that these traditional clients have nowhere else to turn. After all, what are union members and black Americans going to do if dissatisfied or impatient with the Democrats? Swap allegiances and take their case to the Republicans? It’s a real dilemma for union folks, one that’s become increasingly frustrating.
For decades there has been talk of forming a third party, a Labor Party, a streamlined political entity that would have working people’s interests as its primary concern. As attractive as this idea sounds, one needs to ask, hypothetically, what would such a party look like and what could it expect to get done?
Considering how thoroughly entrenched “globalization” has become, not only as an economic reality but as a conventional mindset, naked protectionism-in the form of rigid trade restrictions and steep tariffs-is totally off the table. It’s no longer discussed by mainstream economists, even in theory.
Indeed, suggesting that the U.S. launch what would amount to a trade war in order to raise the wages of workers and nurture the re-emergence of the manufacturing sector would be as repulsive and incomprehensible to the American public as suggesting that people begin eating their pets.
With protectionism not an option, what specific policies would comprise the Labor Party agenda? Surely one would be the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), the anti-union legislation that more or less crippled the labor movement. With Taft-Hartley removed, unions would be free to flourish, and membership, presumably, would increase; and a significant increase in union membership would, presumably, result in an increase in union influence.
Another plank in the platform would likely be the curtailing of “corporate welfare” and closing the loopholes that allow corporations to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Another would be raising the federal minimum wage. Another would be securing universal health care; and another might be the implementation of “portability” of pensions (carrying one’s retirement package from job to job).
But any progress made by a proposed Labor Party assumes that it could get enough party members elected to congress to insure that their legislation is passed. And that assumption is wildly unrealistic.
Even assuming that the Labor Party could get the votes of a majority of the country’s union members (which, given Americans’ propensity for making independent decisions, is a longshot), the number of congressmen elected would be a tiny fraction of the 435 members of the House of Representatives.
Labor Party candidates would not only be running against Republicans vehemently opposed to the union movement (and indifferent to the plight of unaffiliated blue-collar workers), they’d also be running against well-funded Democrats fighting for their political survival.
In truth, because we don’t have a European-style parliamentary form of government where several competing political parties can join together strategically to form a coalition government, a Labor Party would, at best, be relegated to the extreme margins of the process. It would be non-factor, a footnote, a notch or two above the Libertarian Party.
Consequently, grim as the prospect may seem, organized labor’s only institutional hope for the foreseeable future is the Democratic Party. That being the case, what labor needs to do is launch a mission of its own, one designed to “radicalize” the Democrats by getting them do for working people what a theoretical Labor Party would do.
This begins by the rank-and-file electing radical union leaders from the bottom up, and having this radical element take over the Internationals. In turn, the Internationals would support only staunchly pro-labor candidates for office, and funnel their contributions accordingly.
Even with all the setbacks, false hopes and broken promises experienced over the past several decades, organized labor still has the economic leverage to make a difference. What it will take is a tougher posture. It’s time for unions to demonstrate to the Democratic Party that their alliance cuts both ways.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org