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Labor Unions Need to Grow Up

In his autobiography Barney Frank notes that one reason reactionaries are often more successful than progressives is because they are more fanatical, more disciplined, and more willing to do the grunt work required to get the attention of their representatives. Plus, they can always be counted upon to vote.

Elected officials who wish to remain in office are obliged to accommodate their constituencies. Which is why hundreds of letters and phone calls in a single week are going to get their attention. A true believer will not be deterred. Not to paint all conservatives with the same brush, but a “crackpot” will always outwork a generalist.

Frank mentions the NRA (National Rifle Association). Despite virtually every poll in existence indicating the public wants more stringent gun laws, the NRA has not only been largely successful in preventing meaningful reform, it’s now famous for it. Indeed, the NRA has become the gold standard of lobbying.

But according to Frank (who, having spent 32 years in the House, knows a thing or two about it), the NRA is mischaracterized. He writes, “Those liberals who try to comfort themselves with the notion that the NRA wins legislative battles because of their vast campaign contributions are engaged in self-deceptive self-justification. The NRA wins at the ballot box, not in the streets and not by checkbook.”

When the NRA asks its members to mobilize, they respond. They don’t argue, they don’t quibble over minutiae, they don’t question the authority of the executive board, and they don’t balk at being treated as “cogs in a wheel.”

All that these members need to hear are the magic words—“Obama wants your guns”—and the letter-writing and phone calls begin. Say what you will, but the organization’s solidarity and determination are impressive.

Which is why unions needs to emulate the NRA. Instead of insisting on asserting their right to be “free thinkers,” union members need to unclutter themselves. They need to stifle these libertarian impulses and embrace the time-honored virtues of collectivism. In short, they need to get with the program.

The NRA has approximately 7 million members. By contrast, there are 14.6 million union members in the U.S. The AFL-CIO represents 12.7 million of them. That’s 14.6 million workers just waiting to be mobilized. If the same percentage of union members could be counted upon to vote for pro-labor Democrats (as the percentage of NRA members who always vote for pro-gun candidates), it would be a new ballgame.

If the overwhelming majority of those 14.6 million union members could guarantee the Democratic Party that, in return for dedicating itself to organized labor’s trifecta (wages, benefits, and working conditions), these union members could be counted upon to “vote Democrat” across the board, the Democrats, using Barney Frank’s logic, would have the necessary “shelter” they require.

It’s simple math. If the overwhelming majority of a constituency wants A, you don’t give them B….not if you wish to stay in office. The NRA’s 7 million members have proven that, which is why so few elected officials dare to disappoint them.

It’s been said that the two reasons national Democrats haven’t “delivered” for labor, despite the staggering amount of political donations they’ve received, are (1) labor has no choice but to vote Democrat (or not vote at all) as the Republicans would be infinitely worse, and (2) because the Democrats don’t trust union people. And who can blame them?

Unlike the NRA, whose members are as loyal as puppies, union members are too fragmented, too cynical, too squirrelly to be taken seriously. I say this as a former union president. Yes, we talk a good case, and yes, some of us are even willing to get involved, but in reality, half of us don’t even bother to vote.

Of course, politics being politics, there’s no guarantee that a “solid front” will result in success. For example, even with overwhelming support, who’s to say that the EFCA (card check) initiative would’ve have become law? We’ll never know.

But one thing is certain. In fact, one thing is an absolute lock. The frittering away of political power by 14.6 million people—simply because they were too self-absorbed or cranky to remain united—will be remembered as one of the most egregious missed opportunities in history.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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