by Jay Monaco
Yeah, all that stuff I said about labor and the TPP? Totally never mind, guys. Never mind. Forget it.
I wrote about how the leaders of labor, so often pleading impotence, revealed themselves little Machiavellis in the halls of power during the Trade Promotion Authority fight, winning the day by browbeating democrats into defeating Obama’s maniacal anti-worker push for a trade deal. In my view, this revealed once and for all that labor, even in its weakened state, still has muscles to flex in Washington when they really want something; therefore, we should no longer let them off the hook when they claim to lack the power to push their agenda.
Well, then more time happened, everybody got distracted, and suddenly all the briefly-feisty democrats did a complete about-face and gave Obama the no-debate authority that virtually guarantees passage of the eventual trade pact (and the ones coming behind it), no matter what is in it.
Labor, it turns out, is impotent after all. So, what now?
The most damning indictment handed down by all of this, is, of course, of big labor’s present-day strategy of partisan lobbying uber alles. Rather than focusing time, personnel, and cash on educating, radicalizing, and mobilizing workers to demand their interests be served, both in individual workplaces and in the streets themselves – which is complicated, messy, and doesn’t make you many friends among the political elite – big labor decided in recent decades that workers would be best served by labor leaders having “a seat at the table.” In a sense, this smacks of representative democracy, an idea not at all anathema to the mission of organized labor. In practice, however, this strategy means pumping resources – precious time, personnel, and cash – into getting democrats elected.
It isn’t always easy – due to anti-labor SCOTUS rulings, unions must keep political money separate from organizing money, and usually must ask special permission to get members to contribute funds to the political side. It’s sad to report, but I’m personally close to at least one paid union organizer whose entire job consisted of convincing workers making less than $10 an hour to contribute weekly money to the PAC, which would then spend the money on national democrats. The obvious problem? Democrats respond by making friends with union leaders, taking their money for granted, and never delivering on any promise, ever.
Dedicating the sum total of the efforts of large unions to electing democrats wins absolutely nothing for workers. This is merely the most recent – and perhaps more consequential – example. And it underscores a vital point: unions may be impotent, but democrats, despite being in the minority, are not. They can, and do, do what they want. They could deliver wins for unions just as surely as they delivered this win for Obama and big business, the just don’t want to. Maybe, as the Guardian suggested, they were simply bought off, straight up. Perhaps big business simply pays better than big labor. Why should we expect otherwise? Perhaps union strategists simply failed to account for the possibility of a TPP counterattack after their initial victory, which would amount to a glaring oversight. Most likely, it’s a combination of the two factors, neither of which bodes well for the partisan lobbying “we need to give the democrats everything or we’re effed” strategy.
Actually, that’s not true. It may utterly, utterly disprove the effectiveness of this strategy (for the bajillionth time), but it doesn’t mean its demise. Without a rank-and-file uprising, there’s no indication whatsoever that the big labor bosses intend to stop indulging in the same useless exercise again and again while hoping for different results – if they actually even want different results, which is somewhat doubtful at this point.
Once in a great while, we hear stories about truly principled union leaders, like Larry Cohen, outgoing CWA president, who believes labor is “not an end to itself but a means for transforming society. I’m almost always inspired by the tactics and philosophy of the more-radical-than-usual Chicago Teachers Union. But more often, it’s stories like this, about power-mad Mary Kay Henry of the SEIU, undermining tens of thousands of workers for something as petty as personal political interests. These are the facts, this is the dichotomy, that absolutely must be presented to rank-and-file union members in the starkest of terms. Ultimately, no union leader – not Mary Kay or anybody else – can hold onto the throne in the face of a full-scale member rebellion. It’s time for union laborers – remember them? – to pull the levers of whatever ostensible democracy exists in their organization in order to spur leaders into demanding actual policy wins, not to mention the stacks and stacks of goals even more radical than all that.
The situation is dire. If past performance teaches us anything, it’s that things are likely to get worse, unions are likely to get smaller and weaker, “victory” an even more mystical, mythological concept than it is today. But this is not just your run-of-the-mill “teaching moment”; instead, it has all the markers of an opportunity waiting to be seized. If anything is an indication of this, it’s perhaps the strongest and most hopeful development emerging from Bernie Sanders’ populist social-democracy flavored presidential campaign, Labor for Bernie. This is a grassroots movement attempting, first and foremost, to educate, recruit, and mobilize rank-and-file workers in a show of support for Sanders over brazen corporate neoliberal Hillary Clinton and all the other establishment democrats vying for the top job. I’m on record as being critical of Sanders, but for ground-level members to be moved into staging this kind of proto-revolt represents the beginning of a needed seismic shift in worker consciousness, independence, and democracy.
Lest we be tempted to dismiss this enterprise too quickly, it’s important to note that Big Richard Trumka himself, lovable head of the AFL-CIO, isn’t dismissing it. This guy is spooked enough to frantically dash off a desperate memo to his state, central, and area divisions (which report directly to the National), to tell them they’re not allowed to issue candidate endorsements independent of the National. Of course, they all already know this, since it’s standard, long-standing policy, but the implicit reminder is much more specific: Don’t endorse Bernie because you’re going to make Hillary mad at me. This isn’t about your actual day-to-day interests. It’s about me preserving my seat at the table.
Trumka’s nervousness should motivate every single one of us. It’s a sign of hope, of possibility; not merely to find such things in the person of Bernie Sanders, but to recognize the cracks forming in the union bureaucracy self-preservation game. It’s time to exploit those cracks, to widen them, and widen them some more, until the cracks become an opening for a real and revitalized labor movement to march crashing through the gates before them.
Let’s get to work.