Big Labor Folds, Endorses Obama

Back in 2010, Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT), lashed out at President Obama who she said was part of the “blame the teacher crowd” of education reform.

“I never thought I’d see a Democratic president, whom we helped elect, and his education secretary applaud the mass firing of 89 teachers and staff,” she said – referring to the firing of all teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island earlier that year.

Last month, the AFT executive council unanimously voted to endorse Obama for reelection.

“While we have not agreed with every decision President Obama has made, he shares our deep commitment to rebuilding the middle class and ensuring everyone has an opportunity to achieve the American dream,” Weingarten said. Never mind those 89 teachers or the thousands more whose “opportunity to achieve the American dream” is under the gun of Obama’s school “reform” agenda.

Last year, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka criticized Obama for aligning with the right and cutting social programs.

“If they [Obama administration] don’t have a jobs program, I think we’d better use our money doing other things,” the leader of the nation’s largest union federation said, threatening to withhold labor’s support for Obama. Less than two months later, Trumka told reporters that the AFL-CIO would most likely endorse the reelection campaign, saying, “President Obama has been a friend for us.”

On Tuesday the AFL-CIO’s executive board unanimously voted to endorse Obama.

“Although the labor movement has sometimes differed with the president and often pushed his administration to do more – and do it faster – we have never doubted his commitment to a strong future for working families,” Trumka said in a statement announcing the endorsement.

None of this should surprise anyone who is familiar with labor’s captivity in the machinery of the Democratic Party. What appears to be schizophrenic in the real world is normal behavior in the world of organized labor and electoral politics.

But this election comes after a year of unprecedented attacks on workers.

Both Republicans and Democrats have been ratcheting up the war against unions, a fact that is making it increasingly difficult for union leaders to justify their support for Obama to their rank-and-file members.

“Notwithstanding all our disappointment with the Obama presidency, it’s clear that the clowns on the Republican side would be devastating to working people,” a Communication Workers of America (CWA) official told In These Times last month. “But we’re anticipating a tougher challenge motivating people because there is a lot of disappointment and letdown,” he admitted.

That’s probably because workers are hard-pressed to imagine what could be more “devastating to working people” than what they’ve seen in the last year alone. Workers have faced the erosion of collective bargaining rights, the first state in the Midwest passing “Right to Work” legislation, an FAA reauthorization bill signed by Obama that makes it more difficult for airline workers to organize, plans for massive layoffs of postal workers nationwide, and ramped-up attacks on public education.

And that’s by no means an exhaustive list of the recent blows suffered by the labor movement.

In addition to the AFT and AFL-CIO, major unions that have declared their endorsement for Obama’s reelection include SEIU, AFSCME, Laborers’ International Union (LIUNA), United Food and Commercial Workers, CWA, the Machinists, United Farm Workers, United Steel Workers, and the National Education Association. The list is sure to grow as the election season moves forward.

“We’ve been treading water as a labor movement,” says Chris Townsend, Political Action Director of United Electrical Workers (UE). At best, supporting Democrats is a strategy to buy time. And union leaders won’t admit to their members that they are stuck,” he adds, echoing a point he made in a recent interview on Al-Jazeera’s Inside Story.

Townsend is one of the few union officials in the labor movement who forcefully criticizes labor’s allegiance to the Democratic Party. He points out that the more unions continue the bankrupt strategy of supporting a party that is often ambivalent or hostile to the movement, the harder it will be for them to beat back the right-wing agenda to destroy unions altogether.

“How many more times is labor going to go back to the members and tell them to vote for some Democrat that has left us hanging? It’s no wonder that many union members and workers are not buying the Obama-Biden rhetoric this time. Instead of tackling the corporations and the Republicans head-on, the White House stands by in silence while organized labor is subjected to a life and death struggle in Wisconsin and Ohio. If union members get stuck voting for Obama because Romney is so much worse, we should just tell the truth. We are trapped in a profoundly corrupt and rigged political system. By going back again and again and hanging the union seal of approval on candidates who are not supportive of our cause, we merely hasten our own demise.”

On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times reported that labor leaders are talking about “shifting” their tactics by spending less on politics and more on movement-building. The Times reports that the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents some 190,000 transit workers in the U.S. and Canada, “has shifted ‘the culture of [the] union from…political activity to broader coalition building,’”

Meanwhile, an election battle is brewing within AFSCME, a union that represents 1.6 million public sector workers and which spent more money during the 2010 elections than any other group. One of the candidates vying to replace the outgoing President Gerald McEntee says he wants to put an end to the “checkbook unionism” that has so closely tied the union to the Democratic Party.

But the political landscape since the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision has seen unlimited spending on politics in the form of “SuperPACs.” And it’s not just corporations that are taking advantage of the new terrain. At the end of January the ALF-CIO’s “Workers’ Voice” SuperPAC had raised up to $4 million.

Of course, union leaders will not be able to mobilize their membership the way they did in 2008. Four years ago, the AFL-CIO sent 250,000 volunteers knocking on doors for Obama and other Democratic candidates. Much of that base of members and allies is deeply disenchanted with the Obama administration. And for good reason.

Before he dropped labor’s biggest priority in 2009 by abandoning the Employee Free Choice Act, Obama was busy stacking his administration with Wall Street insiders. More recent corporate additions include the anti-union General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt who chairs the president’s “Jobs Council.”

Over the past few years teachers from California to Chicago to New York have essentially been held at gunpoint by austerity-driven governors and mayors whose cuts and test-based reforms are supported by Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan.

In the private sector, American Airlines is using Chapter 11 bankruptcy to tear up union contracts, “restructure” pensions and cut up to 13,000 jobs. And for his reelection, Obama has received nearly $29,000 from AT&T, a company that is looking to layoff hundreds of workers in the Southeast.

Last year, Democrats in Indiana fled the state and successfully stopped a bill that would have made Indiana the first “Right to Work” state in the union-heavy rust belt. But this year, the Democrats chose to stand down, giving the green light to employers to bleed members and money from the unions.

But it seems Democrats can rely on Obama’s celebrity and eloquence to win back the hearts of labor leaders. Introducing Obama at the recent United Auto Workers conference, UAW leader Bob King praised Obama as “the champion of all workers.”

If King feels he owes Obama a bit of gratitude, it’s because the president extracted huge concessions from his members in exchange for “saving the industry.” So King’s job is safe, even if hundreds of thousands of workers suffered massive layoffs and cuts to wages and benefits. Years of outsourcing, two-tier wage structures and other concessions have led to job loss and stagnant wages throughout the industry. Now the UAW has joined Obama in celebrating the return of some outsourced jobs thanks to these “competitive wages.”

In an apparent mission to turn the U.S. into a source of cheap labor, policymakers in both political parties have for decades demonstrated their commitment to permanently lower working-class living standards. And recently Obama has been less shy about his role in this effort, touting his own policies for helping to make the U.S. more competitive with low-wage countries. Indeed, the cover story in the latest issue of Mother Jones magazine, documenting journalist Mac McClelland’s time working in an online retail warehouse, leaves readers wondering how far the U.S. working class is from experiencing the same grueling conditions that have made Apple factories in China so famous.

Manufacturing isn’t the only target, though. The logic of Obama’s “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program – offering education funding to states in exchange for teacher evaluations based on student test scores and opening more charters – has permeated school districts across the country, with devastating effects for students, teachers and their unions. In many cities, as “underperforming” teachers are fired and “underperforming” schools face closures and “turnarounds,” low-income students of color are being impacted the most.

But even if RTTT is aimed at privatizing public education and undermining teacher unionism, AFT President Weingarten is more likely to be heard giving her qualified praise for the program. That’s not the only reason AFT’s exuberant endorsement of Obama is unsurprising. After all, in addition to running the second-largest education union in the country, Weingarten is an active member of the Democratic National Committee. The fact is that countless other paid Democratic Party functionaries cycle through the upper echelons of the labor movement. But they are a lot less powerful than the corporate forces in the party, which begs the question: who is working for whom?

No wonder, then, that labor has at times had trouble relating to the Occupy movement. Reasonable concerns about cooptation aside, the movement includes ultra-left elements who claim to represent the “89 percent” – that is, excluding what they call the “privileged” minority of workers who are union members.

Such anti-union rhetoric used to be the exclusive domain of conservatives aimed at antagonizing union and non-union workers. But with labor leaders so visibly entrenched in the Democratic Party, maybe it isn’t so astonishing that leftist activists who fail to differentiate between union leadership and the rank-and-file are prone to such ideas.

Clearly, more rank-and-file involvement is needed to both challenge union officials and undercut misconceptions on the left about the labor movement.

Ultimately, real union power is not displayed by workers canvassing for Democrats. It’s exercised by workers on the job, like the 70 UE factory workers who again occupied their workplace last month and won their demands to keep the plant open while they find a new buyer, or perhaps run the factory themselves. Or the nearly 500 Seattle port truck drivers who went on strike for two weeks in February in protest against abuse and deregulation that has prevented them from organizing with the Teamsters. Or the teachers in New York City and Chicago who, along with Occupy protesters, have led fiery demonstrations against budget cuts and school closures.

Sometimes there are tactical reasons for unions to engage in electoral politics, but trade unionism is not about electing Democrats. Workers join unions to enforce decent pay and working conditions on the job. Organizing in an active union also raises the consciousness of workers around working-class issues beyond an individual workplace, like national healthcare policy and globalization. And like other social justice movements, labor cannot attribute much of its success to voting within the corporate confines of the two-party system.

Real power for workers and the oppressed exists in the streets and in the workplace, in the form of militant grassroots struggle.

Every national election points to the urgency for radicals to free the muscle of the union movement from the grip of the Democratic Party – to tighten the grip of the working class around the machinery of profit.

Brian Tierney is a freelance labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches, where this article first appeared.