Tag: Democratic Party

The AFL-CIO “On the Beach”

In the chilling 1959 cold war apocalyptic film, On the Beach, the entire northern hemisphere has succumbed to radiation sickness after a nuclear war. A few pockets of humanity remain in the southern hemisphere but, the characters in the film discover, their demise is inevitable as wind currents slowly move the nuclear fall- out toward them. Life goes on as usual, albeit at a more frenzied and desperate pace, as people await their doom while the radioactive cloud creeps toward them, silencing other outposts as it moves.

At the risk of being overly dramatic, it could be said that today’s AFL-CIO is “on the beach” and awaiting its own demise while attempting to carry on as if it still had a future. Formed in 1955 with a merger meant to end two decades of bitter infighting, the AFL-CIO’s primary purpose was to consolidate and administer the post-war collective bargaining regime. There was a reason why its new headquarters building overlooked the White House. The premise of that regime was that labor was a limited partner with capital in a relationship mediated by the federal government.

This arrangement made workers and their unions particularly vulnerable to the rise of neoliberal globalization. Moreover, a labor movement whose mission focused on collective bargaining with individual employers, and with many of the fundamental functions of working- class solidarity outlawed or constrained, left little scope for a national labor organization to mobilize and lead an organized working class in campaigns against capital.

Instead, we got a federation whose primary internal function was not to unite but to mediate between autonomous unions and whose exter- nal function was to intervene in a regulatory state and serve as a junior partner in a multi- class political party. (Until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. labor movement also performed the additional function of serving U.S. foreign policy interests.)

Today, labor’s influence has been reduced to a few diminishing private-sector outposts. Capital has long moved on, embracing a neoliberal world order with no place for unions or any restraints on its mobility or autonomy. The strange fruits of the November 2016 presidential election make a Friedrichs’-style open-shop public sector all but inevitable. The current Congress and Trump administration may well enact a national right-to-work regulation and do whatever else they can to undermine the right to organize and bargain.

The AFL-CIO has been grappling with this existential crisis since 1995 when, in the only contested election in the history of the AFL- CIO, the New Voices slate was elected with the promise to stop doing business as usual and implement an organizing-intensive program to revitalize the labor movement. The proximate cause of all of this ferment and change was the realization that the Democratic Party had also been captured by neoliberalism. This was driven home by the Clinton administration’s indifference to labor law reform, deference to the medical industrial complex, attacks on federal workers and abandonment of the New Deal/Great Society principles of a social safety net and its embrace of punitive models of social regulation.

Unfortunately, the New Voices leadership never addressed the need to break out of its entrapment within the neoliberal Democratic Party. They actively discouraged the significant union-sponsored effort to build an independent Labor Party that emerged in the late 1990s.[1]

Instead, they doubled down, giving more and more money and organizing resources to Democratic candidates and getting less and less in return. Each election was “the most important fight of our lifetime.” Each victory gave us nothing. Each defeat had disastrous consequences.

This political accommodationism meant that there would be no real improvements in the laws regulating workers’ rights to organize and bargain nor restrictions on plant closures and offshoring. The unrelenting decline in private- sector union density continued, creating a hollowed-out labor movement in all but a few northeastern and west coast states. Union density in Wisconsin in 2011 (the year of the pas- sage of the state’s anti-union public-sector legislation) was less than the union density in Mississippi in 1964.[2] First in Indiana and Wisconsin and then throughout much of the old industrial heartland, anti-union state governments began to aggressively dismantle public- and private-sector organizing and bargaining rights.

In 2005, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) led five national unions out of the AFL-CIO and launched the Change to Win Federation with a promise to shift resources from politics to organizing. Despite its sound and fury, Change to Win failed to reverse the forces leading to the broad decline of the institutional labor movement. They tripled down on accepting the two parties of neoliberalism as the eternal and unchanging reality of American politics and adopted an instrumental politics that would make an old school building trades local proud: we offer this support in exchange for an agreement to unionize these workers under these terms.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. As union density and political clout diminish, a new cadre of anti-union politicians has abrogated these “organizing” agreements as quickly and as easily as they were established by their predecessors. Today, Change to Win mostly exists on paper while the SEIU spends more on political candidates than does the AFL-CIO.[3]

The logical conclusion of the SEIU’s organizing strategy has been described by “new labor” superstar David Rolf, president of Seattle-based SEIU Local 775, as the “nurse log metaphor”[4]  (a nurse log is a fallen tree in the forest that provides nourishment for other plants). Under this scenario, the institutional labor movement’s primary function is to trans- fer resources from organized, dues-paying members to new initiatives like the Fight for $15 campaigns that can rapidly improve conditions for broad sections of the working class without the hassle and difficulty of building a permanent workplace organization. The problem with this, of course, is that it fails to leave behind the type of organic working-class insti- tutions that can nurture leadership and a sense of collective power. At best, the end result is hollowed-out structures like those unions created by administrative fiat to “represent” home health care and family daycare workers.[5]

One alternative to this approach is what journalist Rich Yeselson has called “fortress unionism”6: Defend the remaining bastions of high-density unionism, strengthen existing union locals, build coalitions with other social movements, and then, “Wait for workers to say they’ve had enough.” This is not unlike the characters in On the Beach who wanted to believe that the radioactive clouds would dissipate before they got to them. Defending collective bargaining where it is still viable is a necessary but not sufficient response to the crisis. “Fortress unionism” as a strategy would merely replicate on a much smaller scale the post-war labor movement’s acquiescence to a non-union South after the defeat of Operation Dixie in 1946-1947.

This is the paradox of the American labor movement trapped in a dying collective bar- gaining regime. On the one hand, its very existence is an affront to the neoliberal consensus that views any effort to intervene in the market as parasitic rent-seeking. Its very survival requires that it mobilize workers to confront massive political and economic power, and the threat of that mobilization is what focuses the organized power of capital against it. On the other hand, on a day-to-day basis, the labor movement must deal with the quotidian concerns of its dues-paying members. This is the world of compromise and contract enforcement, of shift schedules and work boot reimbursements, and of defending the guilty so the innocent will not be harassed. They used to call this stuff industrial democracy but now it just befuddles and bores those staffers and “leaders” who never worked in a union shop or experienced what it is like to be a shop steward coming into work in the morning and seeing ten coworkers waiting by the time clock.

The growth of alt-labor worker centers and similar organizations offers some hope as groups such as the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance evolve from foundation-funded “set- tlement house-style” centers that treat workers as clients to membership-driven organizations intent on building worker power. They may very well develop new models that embed worker organizations into workplaces without relying on the legal entailments and formalities

of the collective bargaining regime. But most workers are not willing to sign up for a lifetime of guerrilla warfare. They want security, respect, and enforceable rights and conditions. It certainly makes for great visuals when fifty immigrant construction workers take the day off and picket the boss’ house when they are robbed of their overtime pay, but, I can assure you, most would rather pay union dues so that they could file a grievance under an enforceable labor contract.

What does all this portend for the future of the AFL-CIO? The Federation is being riven by barely acknowledged ideological debates. The dispute over the Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline construction projects exposed the fault lines between those who saw labor’s future as linked to a partnership with capital in an expansionist and extractive economy model and those who saw the potential in a labor movement aligned with the advocates for a planned and regulated green economy. The 2016 Democratic primaries also heightened the contradictions between those who have accepted the neoliberal world order as inevitable versus those who want to build a new social democratic alternative to neoliberalism,  and  the  Trump  administration will certainly intensify these differences. So far, the AFL-CIO has not proven to be a good forum in which to hold these debates. It has taken a hands-off approach and tried to sweep the contradictions under the table. But these contradictions persist nonetheless. They show up in debates over who to support for DNC chair and in the growth of informal caucuses of the left, right, and center. The decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growth of these tendencies based on very different visions of the role of labor in the age of Trump can only accelerate the demise of a Federation model that was crafted in different times for different purposes.

In addition to the ideological pressures, the AFL-CIO is facing a huge financial crunch that will be made worse as the large public-sector unions reduce expenses in anticipation of the loss of agency fee revenue under a new Friedrichs decision. The Federation may soon no longer be able to afford its penthouse terrace overlooking the White House.

But there is something to be said for labor unity, especially in a time of crisis. Many of the central labor councils and state labor federa- tions play a vital role in bringing together the best and the brightest, supporting workers in struggle and engaging in ground-level political mobilization. Compared with the one-party states that characterize most unions, even many of the progressive ones, these structures allow leaders and activists to escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns. If there is to be a real debate about labor’s future, it has to be within structures like these.

If nothing else, this would ensure that the debate would take place within organic structures of leaders connected and accountable to real constituencies and capable of committing organizational resources to a common program. One of the temptations afflicting many in the nominal left is to substitute their own prescriptions for the kind of programmatic unity that can only emerge from such a process. There is no shortage of ideas, many of them quite good, about what the labor movement ought to be doing next. What is needed is not more good ideas but a unified left pole that can give life to a common plan for a revitalized labor movement. This can only happen if key national and local labor organizations are at the table from the beginning of the discussion and feel like they own the outcomes.

There will probably be an AFL-CIO until the radioactive clouds envelop the last outposts of unionism. But time is running short for those who would like to see the AFL-CIO as a catalyst for a revitalized labor movement. To move forward, the Federation must embrace the “spirit of 1995” and acknowledge that we are in deep crisis and need an open and wide-ranging debate about solutions. This must involve a recognition that a revitalized labor movement needs a new vision of politics and a commitment to shift resources toward transformational programs such as single-payer health care, green infrastructure development, and expanding the public sector to support collective bar- gaining goals while building new relationships with social movements and working-class constituencies. There are certainly leaders, staffers, and activists at all levels of the labor movement who recognize the urgency for change. As we deal with the fallout from the disastrous elections and prepare for the AFL-CIO’s upcoming quadrennial convention, this a good time to begin.

One more thing about On the Beach. At the very end, the camera scans the deserted streets of Melbourne, Australia and settles on a Salvation Army poster. “There is still time,” it says. . . .

Notes

1. See Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, “Labor Party Time? Not Yet,” 2012, available at http://thelaborparty.org/d_lp_time.htm.

2. Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/02/23/385843576/50-years-of-shrinkingunion-membership-in-one-map.

3. Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/big-laborunions-step-up-presidential-election-spending-1476783002.

4. Harold Meyerson, “The Seeds of a New LaborMovement,” American Prospect, October 30,2014, available at http://prospect.org/article/labor-crossroads-seeds-new-movement.

5. For further discussion of this tension, see Jane McAlevey, “Labor Wars: Put Workers Back at the Center of Organizing,” New Labor Forum 25, no. 3 (2016): 87-89.

6. Rich Yeselson, “Fortress Unionism,” Democracy,Summer, 2013, available at http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/29/fortress-unionism/.Response to Mark Dudzic’s”The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Author Biography

Mark Dudzic is a long-time union activist and former national organizer of the Labor Party. He currently serves as national coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare.

Response to Mark Dudzic’s “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Julie Kushner with Kitty Weiss Krupat

There are progressive trade unionists (from the AFL-CIO down to the shop floor) who are engaged in debate about the future of the labor movement—a movement that is struggling to regain its power to defend the rights of workers against the overwhelming force of capital and corporate dominance. For over forty years, I have been part of those debates, as has Mark Dudzic. I began reading his article, “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach’” but almost stopped dead after his opening gambit, an apocalyptic vision from the film On the Beach as a metaphor for the AFL-CIO— all washed up and “awaiting its own demise . . .” But I read on and found myself in agreement with Dudzic on several points. That said, I think, in the main, his conclusions are unbalanced or unfair, dismissing too freely the complexities and contradictions inherent in any organization structured as a federation with voluntary membership.

His narrative begins in 1955, with another metaphor of sorts—the establishment of the AFL- CIO in a building overlooking the White House. What emerges is a picture of the AFL-CIO as a disembodied structure—an imposing marble building with a professional staff and a “marriage” of convenience with the Democratic Party. Largely absent from this picture are unions and the workers they represent. From this limited perspective, Dudzic places the burden of survival on the AFL-CIO, without fully considering the role of its affiliates or examining the policies, prac- tices, and actual campaigns carried out by individual unions and their members. I believe this is a common weakness in labor analysis.

Rightly, Dudzic warns against the danger of divisions within the AFL-CIO on ideological or political grounds, but he overlooks the impor- tant role the Federation plays in bringing unions together to support one another’s organizing or collective bargaining campaigns. He does not mention the enormous resources provided by the Federation, including statewide Leadership Institutes that bring union leaders together across jurisdictional lines to debate critical labor issues. He urges labor activists to “escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns” without reference to Working America, a community affiliate of the Federation that gives non-union workers opportunities to organize around such issues as health care, education, and housing.

We have to wait until the final paragraphs of “On the Beach” to learn something about the important work going on at state federations and central labor councils. Dudzic leaves the impres- sion that these labor bodies are somehow separate from the AFL-CIO. In fact, they are directly char- tered by the AFL-CIO, and many are financed by the Federation in the form of “Solidarity Grants.” These grants help to support the development of labor–community alliances around the country that have resulted in such campaigns as the Fight for $15. In his discussion of alt-labor groups, he points to the Taxi Workers Alliance as a prime example, failing to note that the Alliance is a char- tered member of the AFL-CIO, the first “non-tra- ditional” union of independent contractors in the Federation.

I share Dudzic’s desire for labor unity around a progressive social and political agenda, and I think his critique of the alliance between labor and government is a cogent one. But I also think it is unrealistic to suggest that we ignore the main- stream political arena. Dudzic carefully explains how the alliance has led labor into the neoliberal establishment, but he sidesteps the issue that immediate and constant pressure to save members’ jobs has often driven individual unions into the conservative camp on particular issues such as the environment or trade. I wish Dudzic had spent more time contemplating long-term solutions to that problem, rather than condemning unions for their failures to unite around a left political agenda. I also wish he had noted unions, such as the Utility Workers, who are committed to job creation through Blue-Green alliances and investments in infrastructure development as well as in education and training to help workers transition from old jobs to new ones. Dudzic’s failure to recognize the significant accomplishments of labor through the Working Families Party is also a serious omission.

I do not want to whitewash the weaknesses in labor’s political work. We have failed to convince union members to vote in their own interests, and that is a bottom line. Nevertheless, political action is a necessary part of our work, which can result in important benefits for workers. The 2016 Verizon strike is a good example. Because of its relation- ship to the Democratic Party, labor was able to call upon then Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to facilitate a settlement that added 1,300 new jobs and created the first contracts at several Verizon stores—all without concessions on job security and flexibility. The appointment of a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board during the Obama administration allowed university workers to regain rights to organize they had lost in the Bush era.

Dudzic suggests that low union density in Wisconsin and Indiana was the enabling factor in allowing state governments to dismantle organiz- ing and bargaining rights in the public sector. I do not think density can be isolated as the factor in that or any other labor struggle. We have to give the Koch brothers some credit. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates poured money and resources into the Wisconsin fight. Unions from around the country came together in the greatest show of labor soli- darity in recent memory. But the combined power of the national labor movement was no match for the power of accumulated capital in the hands of the Koch brothers.

Ultimately—and I am sure Mark Dudzic would agree—we need to encourage and stand with those of our members who are ready to persist and resist. More challenging and more difficult, we need to develop effective ways to engage with, and change the minds of, those members who allow race, gender, homophobia, and fear of difference to divide us. I certainly agree with him that wide-ranging debate is a necessary first step in that direction.

Author Biographies

Julie Kushner is the director of UAW-9A, a region that encompasses New England, parts of New York, and Puerto Rico. In this capacity, she is a member of the International UAW Executive Board.

Kitty Weiss Krupat, a union organizer and labor educator, recently retired as an associate director of the Murphy Institute. Her publications include Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance, co-authored with Patrick McCreery.

 

Mark Dudzic Respondes

Julie Kushner rightfully stresses the many impor- tant things that individual unions are doing to “defend the rights of workers against the over- whelming force of capital.” However, the intent of my essay was to focus on the prospects for the future of the AFL-CIO in light of the continuing decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growing differences among the national unions that make up the federation (her reference to the Utility Workers’ excellent work in promot- ing a Blue-Green Alliance in contrast to more conservative approaches taken by other unions exposes one of those fault lines).

Kushner agrees that the AFL-CIO has diffi- culty functioning as a unified working-class voice because of its federation structure, mak- ing it ill-suited to lead at a time when the con- tradictions with capital have intensified. This structure holds the AFL-CIO hostage to the effective veto of any action by any one of its affiliates. These limitations have convinced union leaders like Larry Cohen, former presi- dent of the Communications Workers of America, that “Too often a particular union’s stance may reflect a private employer’s growth plans, not the general good for working people” and that we should “. . . not necessarily focus on [labor] unity about political strategy.”1

Recent layoffs and reductions in programs at the AFL-CIO are indicative of the precarious- ness of its financial situation and are probably just the beginning of a painful process of finan- cial retrenchment. This situation creates its own death spiral. Will the affiliates continue to prop up the AFL-CIO as it sheds programs and services and is increasingly unable to rise to the challenge of opposing a sustained and concerted attack on the foundational rights to organize and bargain?

Moreover, the Federation has been unable to resolve the tension that Kushner identifies between transactional and transformative politics. The relentless drive toward the lowest common denominator means that the long-term interests of the working class—precisely what a national labor organization should, in theory, be consti- tuted to promote—are often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. At a time when right-wing populism poses an existential threat to the principles and values of an independent labor movement, these compromises can prove disastrous.

I agree with Kushner that perhaps the most important raison d’être of the AFL-CIO is the nur-turing of solidarity, discussion, and labor unity at the local and regional level. Like Kushner, I am not ready to give up on the promise of a unified and activist national labor movement and believe that the institutional labor movement continues to be the source of the resources, organizing capacity, and constituency without which any progressive change is inconceivable.

But time is truly running short. And we are not well served by any perspective that seeks to minimize the extent of the crisis or paper over the internal differences. We must begin by rigorous  self-examination  and  debate  led  by leaders and activists who actually have a stake in the outcome. In the end, a newly revitalized labor movement in the United States may look very different than today’s AFL-CIO.

Notes

1. David Moberg, “This Is What Progressives—Especially Labor—Can Learn from Bernie Sanders’ Campaign,” In These Times, July 27,2016, available at http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/19330/this_is_what_progressives_especially_labor_can_learn_from_bernie_sanderss_c.

White-Working Class in Action

White Working-Class Voters and the Future of Progressive Politics

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there have been hundreds of reflections written on the behavior, attitudes, needs, and prospects of the “white working class,” a segment of the population that will prove vital to any progressive coalition that stands for both social and economic justice. But what do we mean by "white working class"?

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The significance of Bernie Sanders’s opposition to Donald Trump’s Syria bombing

In years past, it has often been difficult to find anti-militarist beacons in Congress – Democrats included.  Particularly since Dennis Kucinich’s 2013 departure from the House, it’s sometimes seemed that the only prominent national political figure willing to oppose the latest White House military venture was the somewhat-libertarian Senator Rand Paul.  And today, with a Democratic Party left struggling to emerge and define itself in the midst of the Trump opposition, the imperative to create a sane foreign policy – distinct from that of politicians whose domestic policies often verge on the insane – has never been greater.  A Democratic left cannot claim to offer a thorough-going alternative to business-as-usual Washington politics until and unless we break with the conventional bipartisan wisdom on foreign policy.   All of which lends particular significance to Bernie Sanders’s prominent opposition to Donald Trump’s Syria bombing.

Much of the mainstream response to the Syria raid was, of course, familiarly tragicomic – sometimes almost to the point of laughable – with one network newscaster sufficiently moved by the “beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments” so as to quote “the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’”  Another opined that by launching the attack, “Donald Trump became president of the United States.”  More significantly, Congressional leaders previously vowing to fight the man’s administration tooth and nail hastened to back him as he violated American law by usurping their exclusive right to declare war and violated international law by attacking a country that has not attacked us.

The really tragic aspect of the overall reaction, however, lies in the presumption that with this latest act of war, we have actually “done something” in response to the horrific circumstances of the Syrian war – “done something,” that is, in the sense of doing something positive.  And it is precisely on this point, that the Sanders response is most important, as he called on the Trump administration to “explain to the American people exactly what this military escalation in Syria is intended to achieve, and how it fits into the broader goal of a political solution, which is the only way Syria’s devastating civil war ends.”  Now this in itself hardly qualifies as a radical statement.  And the fact that it stands out as in any way unusual is itself an indictment of the current environment in which “doing something” meaningful for the Syrian people is presumed to require dropping bombs and/or sending troops somewhere – and little else.   But given our country’s history of liberal leaders who talk tough about taking on the powers that be, only to rush to join the parade to salute to the commander-in-chief when he plays the war card, the Sanders statement stands out as an all too rare example of a leader on domestic issues proving equal to a foreign policy challenge.

To be fair – and frank – about the current situation, lets not ignore the fact that when Sanders says, “we should’ve learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … that it’s easier to get into a war than get out of one,” and that if “the last 15 years have shown anything, it’s that such engagements are disastrous for American security, for the American economy and for the American people,” it was Barack Obama who was in the White House for most of those years.  To put it bluntly, the Obama presidency largely anesthetized the American antiwar movement.  Again, to be fair, they weren’t the only ones lulled into complacency – let’s not forget that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee gave him the world’s most prestigious prize early on in an administration that went on to bomb seven countries.  But if it takes a figure like Donald Trump to restore the American left’s mojo, well so be it.

A couple of short years ago, it was a fair question whether there really was such a thing as an American left – outside of college lecture halls and counter cultural institutions.  No more. Post-Sanders campaign, we now find millions seeking a government not dominated by Goldman Sachs and their Wall Street peers.  Millions viewing the richest nation on earth being unwilling to guarantee health care to all of its people as an absurd situation.  Millions considering the pursuit of corporate profit an inadequate governing principle for meeting twenty-first century global environmental challenges.  Millions looking for leaders who will reverse the growing divide of wealth and power – across the nation and world wide.   And, likewise, there are millions who recognize that the nation – and the planet itself – cannot indefinitely sustain our current delusionary policy of achieving world peace through ever-increasing armament and intervention.

No one in recent politics has been more insistent on the point that “It’s not me, it’s us,” than Bernie Sanders.  But at the same time, there is no getting around the fact that individual politicians are sometimes required to rise to the occasion.  And Sanders has done so at a particularly important juncture.  Frankness does also require that we recognize that he has not always shone in this area throughout his entire political career: After starting out as a mayor with a foreign policy – meeting with Ronald Reagan-nemesis Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista President of Nicaragua, when he held the top job in Burlington, Vermont – his focus shifted to domestic economic issues when he went to Congress and on occasion he seemingly fell into orthodox foreign policy voting.

He did, however, unquestionably break new ground in the history of presidential debates when he called climate change the greatest threat to our national security, excoriated the policy of overthrowing legitimately elected governments dating back to Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, and took Hillary Clinton to task for her association with Henry Kissinger.  And now, in standing up against the tradition of critical American political thinking ceasing once the president gets violent, he nurtures our chances to really develop an alternative to the bipartisan endless war consensus.  And yes, in the long run that is a job for us, not just him.

Sick on Arrival Health Care Reform in the Age of Obama

Despite all of the parallels drawn between President Obama and Franklin Roosevelt, the new administration initially responded to the health care crisis as though it were 1993, not 1933. Obama sought a minimalist health care reform solution, rather than seizing on the exceptional political moment to strike out in a bold new direction.

Held captive for so long by neoliberal ideas about how best to organize the U.S. economy and society, Obama and many other would-be reformers put competition and consumer choice at the center of their efforts to reform the U.S. health care system. Dozens of major organizations close to the Democratic Party, ranging from the AFL-CIO to MoveOn.org to the Children’s Defense Fund, mobilized over the last year or so on behalf of a breathtakingly modest solution: creation of a public health care plan—essentially a nonprofit insurance company—to compete with the commercial health care insurers. They largely abandoned the call for a single-payer health care system (modeled after Canada’s) around which many progressives have rallied since the demise of the Clinton administration’s Health Security Act. This faith in market-led solutions for health care remained largely unshaken in spite of the recent financial collapse.

The Public Plan Panacea

The centerpiece of their efforts was the creation of a new government-sponsored health care plan for uninsured Americans under age sixty-five who lack employer-based health benefits and do not qualify for Medicaid. This group would be able to choose between a standard package of benefits offered by the public plan or a comparable one provided by private insurers.

Private insurers insisted that a public plan would not compete on a level playing field and would ultimately drive them out of business. Their contention subtly recast the debate over health care reform. The focus shifted to how to make the public plan a “fair” competitor and away from the enormous inequities of the under-regulated private insurance market that have contributed so significantly to the country’s health care crisis. In order to rally support for a public plan and neutralize charges of unfair advantage, some supporters of the public plan watered down the original proposal beyond recognition or bargained away (or shunned) key reforms needed to rein in insurers and providers.1

Supporters of a new government-sponsored health care plan extolled the public sector for its reported superior ability to contain costs and pursue innovations that improve the quality of care.2 They heralded Medicare in particular for retaining wide access while containing expenditures on health care through cost-saving innovations like the prospective payment system introduced in 1983 and fee schedules for doctors introduced in the 1990s.3 Left out of the story is that, for many years, Medicare was largely an unregulated cash cow for providers. The quid pro quo to get physicians and hospitals to end their jihad against Medicare in the mid-1960s was an agreement to reimburse them on a fee-for-service basis and eschew imposing serious cost or budget controls.

For public programs, the devil is in the details. Medicare has been able to spread risks broadly and maintain wide access for the simple reason that the government bluntly requires it to do so. Nearly everyone qualifies for Medicare upon reaching age sixty-five, regardless of health status or income level. This has created at least some sense of social solidarity and given older Americans (across the board) a stake in defending a generous health care system for the elderly. Medicaid, the means-tested health care program for low-income Americans, has had a strikingly different trajectory. It has been far easier to starve Medicaid for funding because lower-income Americans do not enjoy the political clout of the elderly. Also, Medicaid is a mixed state-federal program, while Medicare is primarily a federal program with benefits not varying significantly from state to state.

The public plan that reformers envisioned differed from Medicare in key ways that reinforced the current pathologies of the U.S. health care system. First, supporters talked about the need for competition and choice. Yet employees (and their dependents) who receive health insurance through their workplaces (nearly 160 million Americans) would likely not be free to choose the public plan. These captive consumers might only have the option to go public if their employers decided to switch over to the public system or gave up providing benefits altogether and paid the penalty tax. If that penalty tax is set too low, employers might stop providing health insurance, forcing more of the health care coverage costs onto the government and, ultimately, taxpayers.

Even if the public plan turned out to be cheaper and better than private insurance plans, employers who continue to provide health care coverage would not necessarily offer their employees the public option. For some employers, this would be like drinking the Kool-Aid. In the history of the development of U.S. social policy, business leaders have repeatedly allowed their visceral ideological opposition to governmental programs to trump their immediate bottom-line calculations. The fear is that permitting an expansion of the public sector in one area opens the door to more governmental expansion in other areas. A number of large employers, most notably General Electric (GE), walked away from Clinton’s Health Security Act for precisely this reason.

Another crucial factor is that many large employers are, not surprisingly, large manufacturers of medical devices and other medical products. Is GE ready to funnel its employees into a government-sponsored plan with potentially enormous power to, say, reduce the costs and utilization of MRI machines, a multi-billion a year business for the company? Furthermore, as much as employers begrudge the cost of employees’ health care coverage, many of them do not want to relinquish the paternalistic control that employer-based benefits give them over their workers.

In theory, the public plan should be able to provide better benefits and services at lower costs because it presumably would not be saddled with high administrative costs and pressure to turn a profit for shareholders. But the public program, with its superior benefits and initially lower costs, could end up becoming a magnet for sicker patients in need of costlier care. This would drive up the costs of the public plan, prompting healthier people to flock to less expensive private insurance options.

It is not obvious that the public plan could compete with private plans in terms of costs, quality, and services alone if U.S. insurance companies (unlike those in Europe) remain free to market and advertise their products with few restrictions. One can imagine driving down the highway and seeing massive billboards paid for by private insurers with slogans like: “Should Uncle Sam’s plan tell your doctor what to do?” This could erode public confidence in the government’s ability to solve pressing problems.

The public plan option could undermine public support for governmental intervention in other realms of social policy. It might end up pitting the captive consumers of employerbased private insurance against people enrolled in the public plan. It would be politically explosive if employees covered by private health insurance came to believe that they were providing huge subsidies to a superior public plan in which they were not permitted to enroll. Private insurers would presumably frame their marketing and political strategies around allegations of unfair cost-shifting, putting the public plan further on the defensive.

In short, public plans are not necessarily innately superior when it comes to developing cost-saving innovations. The real question is: under what conditions do the political stars line up to the point where both the government and the public are willing to use their considerable powers as the prime purchasers of health care to rein in providers and insurers? The new public plan could look like the largely unregulated Medicare program in 1965, or the semi-regulated Medicare program in 2009, or today’s underfunded Medicaid program, or the health care equivalent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the quasi-public mortgage companies that were leading culprits in the recent subprime fiasco and foreclosure crisis).

The Single-Payer Alternative

The public plan option has split organized labor and other key groups. Just like fifteen years ago during the debacle over the Clinton proposal, supporters of a single-payer plan are some of today’s fiercest opponents of a minimalist approach to health care reform. They essentially advocate vaporizing the U.S. health insurance industry and replacing it with a government-run program modeled after Canada’s system. The government would pay most medical bills directly; doctors, hospitals, and other providers would operate within global budgets but remain in the private sector; and everyone would be entitled to a basic package of health benefits. The single-payer message has not changed much from the early 1990s, although supporters invested more effort this time around in mobilizing organized labor and other groups to endorse their position. Hundreds of union locals and dozens of central labor councils and state labor federations passed symbolic resolutions in favor of single-payer legislation, as did the international chapters of many major unions.

A single-payer system has a lot going for it. Single-payer advocates have drawn public attention to the extraordinary pathologies of the U.S. health care system, notably the enormous costs amidst gross lapses in care and coverage and the billions squandered on administrative costs. They also have offered the most progressive tax proposals to finance universal health care. When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed all the major health care reform proposals then under consideration in 1993-1994, it concluded that a single-payer plan was the only one likely to achieve universal coverage while saving money. This time around, single-payer advocates have been pushing legislators to conduct hearings on the latest single-payer legislation and to have the CBO cost it out.

Earlier in his political career, Obama spoke strongly in favor of a single-payer system. Today he acknowledges that if he were starting from scratch, single-payer would be preferable but that the best option now is to build on the current system. In the opening months of the health care reform debate, the president, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT)—the chairman of the pivotal Senate Finance Committee—and other leading political players consciously sought to exile or delegitimize single-payer advocates. Meanwhile, they surrounded themselves at the March 2009 health care summit and other leading forums with the “men and women who made their careers killing health care reform,” in the words of the Washington Post. 4

Some key labor leaders publicly made polite noises about a single-payer system, while disparaging it behind the scenes. Most labor leaders focused their energy and resources on backing whatever Obama favored, even though the president was stunningly vague on key issues. Some rallied around the public plan after convincing themselves that it really is a Trojan horse that will ultimately unleash a single-payer plan after enfeebling the private insurance industry. Others signed up because they consider themselves political realists and view the single-payer option as politically dead on arrival.

The Insurance Industry

President Obama and other would-be reformers attempted to skirt an axiom of medical economics that is at the heart of health care politics: “A dollar spent on medical care is a dollar of income for someone.”5 Obama attempted to finesse the politically explosive cost-containment issue by focusing on what one critic called “faith-based savings,” like expanding the use of electronic health care records, and prevention and disease management programs.6 But most experts doubt that these measures will yield sizable savings any time soon.

Health care reform that achieves universal, high-quality, affordable care is fundamentally a redistributive issue with high political and economic stakes. Meaningful cost control will require strong governmental leadership that sets targets or caps on medical spending. This can be done directly, as Canada does with a single-payer system operating within global budgets and that accords private insurers a relatively minor role, or as Britain does with its government-run National Health Service. The alternative is to retain a large private insurance sector, as many European countries do, but keep it (and the medical industry) tightly regulated.

Competition is a weak, indirect way to contain costs in the absence of strong regulatory institutions. Historically, the United States has been shockingly unwilling to seriously regulate its private insurance industry. U.S. health insurance companies are not just underregulated compared to private insurers overseas, but also compared to many other major industries in the United States. A hodgepodge of loose regulations at the state level, enforced by ineffectual and sometimes corrupt state insurance departments, governs the health insurance industry.

Today’s insurance industry is gung-ho on serving as the stick that prods doctors and hospitals to adopt pay-for-performance standards and other cost-cutting and quality control measures. Insurers are outspoken advocates of greater transparency for physicians and hospitals, so that the public is better able to scrutinize their performance and costs. But insurance companies stridently defend their right to keep key information about their own operations confidential. As long as the private insurance industry is allowed to hide behind the cloak of business trade secrets, informed consumer choice—an important ingredient of successful market competition to contain costs—is a myth.7

Beginning in late 2008, U.S. health care insurers made what many commentators have billed as sweeping regulatory concessions. They signaled their willingness to accept all individual applicants, regardless of pre-existing health conditions. They also expressed their willingness to discontinue setting premium rates that are based on health status or gender, but only if Congress mandated that all Americans carry health insurance—i.e., if all Americans were forced to buy their products. These only look like major concessions in the American context, because U.S. insurers have included some whopping caveats. First, they would retain the option of setting rates based on age, geography, and family size in the individual market. This means that premium rates would continue to vary enormously, pricing many people out of the market. Insurers would also retain subtler means to attract healthier subscribers and discourage sicker people from seeking coverage, notably via their extensive marketing budgets and ingenious tactics—like locating their information offices on the upper floors of buildings without elevators. Insurers also made no promises to forego considering health status and other key factors in setting rates for small employers, one of the most profitable segments of the health insurance market.8

Reformers who bemoan the state of the U.S. health care system often bemoan the billions wasted each year on administrative costs, especially medical underwriting which separates the sick from the healthy so as to deny less healthy people insurance policies or charge them exorbitant rates for coverage. But other countries that depend on private insurers to deliver health care benefits—notably Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—engage in medical underwriting to determine which subscribers present the greatest health risks. The difference is that this is a joint endeavor that requires insurers to make their operations far more transparent to governmental regulators who manage elaborate risk adjustment systems. For example, Germany’s hundreds of sickness funds, or private insurers, are required to participate in a risk adjustment mechanism that helps equalize premiums by taking into account dozens of risk factors, not just health status and gender, so that insurers do not cherry-pick people who will use the health care system the least.

The public plan was supposed to force private insurers to become more aggressive with providers in order to hold down costs and prices, or else risk losing customers to the public plan. But why should private insurers be accorded such a preeminent role in defining the public interest in the allocation of health care resources and imposing it on physicians and other providers? Other countries have created formal institutional mechanisms that provide the public and a broad range of stakeholders with a meaningful voice in how to divide up the limited health care pie and monitor health care quality. These formal institutions have real clout and are a long way from the vague and largely unenforceable voluntary promises to cut costs that the U.S. insurance industry and medical providers announced in May 2009, and that President Obama hailed as a watershed moment in health care reform.

Supporters of the public plan solution conceded that the insurance industry needs to be regulated more tightly, but this was not their main focus. Their emphasis on competition reinforced the idea that health care should be treated primarily as a private consumer good distributed by market principles. This undermined the idea of health care as a social good that needs to be organized around underlying principles of social solidarity, not market competition.

Advocates of the public plan jeopardized enormous political capital to get so little. They bent over backwards to convince the public and critics in the insurance industry that they will create a level playing field. This fostered the impression that the insurance industry has been playing fair and square all along. The terms of the debate shifted to the imaginary injustices that a mammoth public plan will inflict on a Lilliputian insurance industry that has historically been too weak and fragmented (or too disinterested) to put the cost-containment screws on providers. This revisionist portrait was at odds with the insurance industry’s real role in the U.S. health care crisis, past and present.

The U.S. insurance industry has been a shrewd behind-the-scenes political operator for well over a century. Each time health care reform has moved to center stage, outcries for more federal action have repeatedly ended up further entrenching the private insurance industry.9 This time may be no different.

Harry and Louise

The public plan solution emerged from the doldrums of the defeated Clinton proposal and out of a very particular reading of what went wrong fifteen years ago. In the revisionist account, Harry and Louise killed health care reform. Harry and Louise starred in a series of infamous commercials funded by the insurance industry. The fictional Harry and Louise sat around their kitchen table fretting that the Clinton plan would force them to change their current health care benefits and maybe even switch doctors.

The ghosts of Harry and Louise have had a striking hold on the current health care debate. The mantra from President Obama, Senator Baucus, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern, and other would-be reformers is that most Americans are basically content with their health care coverage and seek a uniquely American solution that keeps the current system of employer-sponsored benefits largely untouched. The biggest impact of the ad campaign (then and now) appears to have been on elite policy and opinion makers, who have persistently overestimated just how much Harry and Louise represented popular sentiment and how satisfied Americans are with their health care coverage. 10

Evidence continues to mount that Americans are profoundly dissatisfied with their health care system and are ready for major changes. The United States is nearly last in public satisfaction compared with other developed countries (and dead last among polled public health experts), and it’s no wonder why. Since the demise of the Clinton plan, the wheels have come off job-based benefits. Some employers have eliminated health benefits altogether while others are doggedly whittling them away.

It is no longer possible for most Americans to have six degrees of separation from the uninsured. With the official unemployment rate surpassing 8 percent in February 2009, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 52 percent of people with employer-sponsored coverage were worried about losing it. Nearly eighty-seven million Americans were uninsured at some point in the last two years. The foreclosure crisis has riveted public attention on the enormous number of Americans who go bankrupt and risk losing their homes because of medical debts.

The minimalist approach to health care reform did not tap into this smoldering public anger over the health care system, or into the explosive public outrage at the financial industry, the business sector, and their congressional patrons in the wake of the economic meltdown. The political futures of several Democratic barons in Congress—including Senators Christopher Dodd and Charles Schumer, and Representative Charles Rangel—are clouded because of their close, see-no-evil ties to the banking and insurance industries nourished over the years by enormous campaign donations from these sectors. The time was ripe for an ambitious health care reform agenda that fundamentally challenged these special interests because the economic meltdown has made legislators on both sides of the congressional aisle particularly vulnerable to charges of shilling for the business sector. Obama’s decision to seed his administration with many free market protégés of Citigroup’s Robert Rubin also made him vulnerable on this score. So did the choice of Nancy-Ann DeParle, who has served as a director of many large health care companies, to be his health care czar.

We are in the midst of an economic meltdown widely understood to be the result of breathtaking malfeasance by the financial sector and its political patrons. Yet Obama and key advisers repeatedly singled out health care expenditures as the leading threat to the country’s long-term economic health. Characterizing health care as primarily an economic issue is costly. It fosters an exaggerated faith in the possibilities of forging productive coalitions with the business and insurance sectors, and diminishes interest in cultivating a wider social movement on behalf of universal health care. This is exactly what happened in 1993-1994.11 It also distracts political and public attention away from arguably more dire threats to the economy, including the opaque bailout of the financial sector, the gargantuan military budget, and the grossly inequitable tax system. It also stokes public hysteria over the costs of Medicare and Social Security, paving the way for major retrenchments in these two central pillars of the U.S. welfare state.

The Obama administration and most other Democratic Party leaders have responded to the health care crisis in the same way that they have responded to the financial crisis. They have taken extreme care not to upset the basic interests of the powerful insurance industry and segments of the medical industry, and not to raise fundamental questions about the political and economic interests that have perpetuated such a dysfunctional health care system. The biggest surprise is how the leadership of organized labor and many supposedly progressive groups has unquestionably followed Obama and congressional Democrats on health care reform. As a consequence, they may be squandering an exceptional political moment. If the U.S. government can essentially seize control of its automobile sector and contemplate the nationalization of some banks, the beginning of the end of the for-profit health insurance industry seems less far-fetched than it once did.

If the Obama administration and leading Democrats calculated that the current political conditions were not fortuitous enough to secure a single-payer plan, they should at least have pushed for a seriously regulated insurance system of the kind that has predominated in Western Europe (and is now under siege by a push for more privatization there). Failure to attempt even that is perilous for the cause of universal health care and for their political futures. The president and the Democrats risk looking (in a couple of years) like Herbert Hoover and the Republicans on the eve of their historic 1932 defeat, rather than FDR and the Democrats on their march to a triumphant re-election in 1936.

There are not many times in American history when the previous administration and ruling party have been so thoroughly discredited, as have former President George W. Bush and the Republican Party; or when the princes of the financial sector have been “stripped naked as leaders and strategists,” in the words of Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.12 Would-be reformers who recently fought so doggedly to essentially create a nonprofit health insurance company did not recognize the potential of this political moment. Under the spell of the Stockholm Syndrome, they identified too closely with their captors—the insurers, the medical industry, and the lure of market-led solutions. Identifying too closely with one’s captors is risky. When the window opens, you don’t make a run for it; indeed, you may not even notice the opening.

Notes

 

1. Robert Pear, “Schumer Offers Middle Ground on Health Care,” New York Times, May 5, 2009; Len M. Nichols and John M. Bertko, “A Modest Proposal for a Competing Public Health Plan” (Washington, D.C.: New America Foundation, March 2009).

2. Jacob S. Hacker, “The Case for Public Plan Choice in National Health Reform: Key to Cost Control and Quality Coverage” (Washington, D.C.: Institute for America’s Future, 2008).

3. Instead of reimbursing hospitals for their itemized costs after the fact, under the prospective payment system hospitals receive a predetermined payment based on fee schedules for the specific diagnoses (the so-called diagnosis related groups, or DRGs).

4. Ceci Connolly, “Ex-Foes of Health-Care Reform Emerge as Supporters,” Washington Post, March 6, 2009.

5. Theodore Marmor, Jonathan Oberlander, and Joseph White, “The Obama Administration’s Options for Health Care Cost Control,” Annals of Internal Medicine 150 (April 7, 2009): 485.

6. Jonathan Oberlander, “Miracle or Mirage? Health Care Reform and the 2008 Election” (lecture, Leonard Davis Institute, University of Pennsylvania, October 10, 2008).

7. Diane Archer, “Making Health Care Work for American Families: Saving Money, Saving Lives,” statement before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Health, April 2, 2009.

8. Reed Abelson, “Health Insurers Balk at Some Changes,” New York Times, June 3, 2009.

9. Jill Quadagno, One Nation Uninsured: Why the U.S. Has No National Health Insurance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 75; and Jennifer Klein, For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America’s Public-Private Welfare State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

10. Mollyann Brodie, “Impact of Issue Advertisements and the Legacy of Harry and Louise,” Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law 26, no. 6 (December 2001): 1353-60.

11. For more on the 1993-1994 debate, see Marie Gottschalk, The Shadow Welfare State: Labor, Business, and the Politics of Health Care in the United States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

12. Simon Johnson, “The Quiet Coup,” Atlantic Online, May 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/ print/200905/imf-advice (accessed April 4, 2009).

The Democratic Party Left After the Ellison DNC Campaign: Unite or Fight?

One thing to keep in mind about the recent Thomas Perez–Keith Ellison race for Democratic National Committee chair is that it was pretty much an only-in-America sort of thing. Were we in any kind of parliamentary system – like most countries have – the two sides would probably be in different parties – the Bernie Sanders core of the Ellison

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We Believe that We Can Win!

“On the Contrary”

 

Did the Sanders Campaign Represent a Missed Opportunity for the U.S. Labor Movement?: A Debate

 

As our readers know, the labor movement was divided during the Democratic Party primary season over whether to support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination.  We invited contributions from both sides to debate those differences.  Larry Cohen, past president of the Communications Workers of America argued on behalf of the Sanders option, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, together with Leo Casey, president of the Albert Shanker Institute, argued on behalf of the Clinton nomination.  They delivered their initial arguments in early September and then responded to each other.  Both authors assumed, as many readers also did, a Clinton victory.  When the election results came in, Randi Weingarten and Leo Casey asked to rewrite their essay in order to take fuller account of the outcome of the election.  Larry Cohen agreed to this arrangement.  However, he elected to leave his essay as originally written.  He has added a brief addendum that also takes account of the election results. Since Weingarten and Casey withdrew their original contribution, it no longer made sense to publish the replies each had written in response to each other.  Readers should keep in mind that the main part of Cohen’s contribution was written without knowing how the election would turn out, while the Weingarten and Casey essay was written after that outcome had been decided. 

 

When Bernie Sanders began his quest for the presidency in May 2015 in Burlington, Vermont the democratic political establishment either ignored or opposed him.  Hillary Clinton had been running for years and had hundreds of staff and commitments from hundreds of super delegates. Labor leaders were used to being part of that establishment as well.  Although clearly quite different from the Republican Party establishment, labor leaders regularly mingle with Democratic Party leaders and big-money party funders.

“Bernie can’t win,” they repeated to each other over and over. But actually when they said Bernie can’t win, what they really meant was that working-class people can’t win. Sadly, in 2015 most labor leaders had come to believe the legislative priorities long supported by many unions ̶ like single-payer health care, stopping unfair trade deals, or making public higher education affordable ̶ and couldn’t form the basis for a realistic political program for presidential candidates. Ironically, Bernie Sanders’ campaign moved Hillary Clinton ̶ the establishment candidate who sought to convince primary voters she was more able to win ̶ much closer to those and other positions once considered radical.

Far too many labor leaders have long believed that our political action programs are a defensive tactic, or at best on rare occasions a means to achieve incremental advancement, like the Affordable Care Act. It’s easy to criticize such behavior but it’s not new, and with U.S. collective bargaining coverage down by nearly two-thirds in 40 years to just under 12 percent, it’s not surprising. But for those of us who link that slide to the lack of an aggressive political program challenging the fundamental aspects of our economy, that explanation is not sufficient.

There are disparate strategies within labor. Sectoral differences among building trades, government, industrial, and services lead to important differences in political strategy. For government and education workers, the link to elected officials is obvious. While those elected officials are not supporting political revolution, they are adopting budgets that determine whether and how union members work, and often their pensions and health care as well. For many unions, the distinction between lobbying and collective bargaining is very small. Political fundraising from members by these unions is aimed at influencing these bread-and-butter employment issues not the larger issues confronting working families as a whole.

Before Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy hundreds of the congressional and other super delegates who create the political frame for public sector and other unions had already announced support for Hillary Clinton. Breaking from the party establishment would not have been easy for those public-sector unions particularly at the national level. Additionally, political risk aversion is part of the calculus. In the summer of 2015 there was an overwhelming likelihood that the Supreme Court would eliminate the agency shop in the Friedrichs case. As it turned out only the death of Justice Scalia led to the tie vote in that case that left the agency shop in place for those states that permitted it. Practical politics, even at the presidential level, trumped movement-building, transformational politics.

A similar logic often applies to building trades unions, heavily dependent on government- funded projects. Candidates more likely to win, sometimes Republicans as well as Democrats, often get the nod based on funding commitments for public infrastructure.

And similarly for private sector workers from regulated industries, union political endorsements often hinge on candidates’ records on regulation not on broader concerns. Airline and rail workers with high degrees of unionization often make political calculations based on very specific industry issues.

Many national unions, including auto, steel, bakery, letter carriers, teamsters, and electricians, did not make a presidential endorsement until mid-2016 when the primaries were over or nearly over. As a result, there was not a formal AFL-CIO endorsement until just weeks before the Democratic National Convention.

Several national unions, including Communications Workers of America, National Nurses United, American Postal Workers Union, and Amalgamated Transit Union did endorse Bernie Sanders by the end of 2015. Eventually they were joined by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (West Coast dockworkers), United Electrical Workers, the National Union of Healthcare Workers and more than 100 locals from other national unions that either did not endorse or had already endorsed Hillary Clinton. Tens of thousands of active union members formed a national network, “Labor for Bernie” and worked within their unions and in their communities to support Bernie in their state’s caucus or primary.

In most cases, local unions that supported Sanders did not face retribution from their national union. This level of tolerance for local political autonomy is critical moving forward. It is one thing for a national union, through its executive board, to make an endorsement; it’s quite another thing to demand local adherence without a membership vote or formal local input.

Given all of the above, the remarkable outcome was the outpouring of support for Sanders from active union members. Local leadership combined with the national unions that did endorse Sanders, rather than the disappointment with the public sector, education, building trades, and other unions that were early Clinton endorsers.

This support for Sanders translated into strong union majorities in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and several other states.

Union support was also an important part of the Sanders campaign’s narrative. Fighting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and pointing out the harm continuing from the U.S. trade regime that started with NAFTA was central to the campaign. In Chicago, bakery workers at Nabisco, facing the shutdown of the Oreo cookie line at their south side plant resulting from outsourcing of production to Mexico rallied and held news events weeks before the Illinois primary. In Michigan, workers held a press conference detailing what had happened to their families decade after decade as American Axle & Manufacturing, General Motors and others shut down their plants seeking cheaper labor in Mexico and other nations. As Senator Sanders told it, Flint’s hardships originated with GM shutdowns in what had been their hometown. Lead-contaminated water followed years of skyrocketing unemployment, and declining tax revenues in a city that in the early 1960s had been among America’s richest.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of union support came from United Steel Workers (USW) Local 1999 in Indianapolis. A few months before the Indiana primary, United Technologies (UT) announced that it was moving production of its Carrier furnaces to Monterrey, Mexico after fifty years in Indianapolis. Management held an all-hands-on-deck meeting in the plant breaking the news that it would close in about a year. Local President Chuck Jones decided that it was time to fight back and not wait for negotiations over the consequences of the closing. Chuck and his members decided that the upcoming Indiana primary provided an opportunity to join this issue with the election and ask the presidential candidates for help.

Sanders answered the call and fighting UT became a centerpiece in the Indiana primary. Just days before the primary, Sanders spoke and joined a march through the city protesting the closing, that included USW officials and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. Chuck Jones and most Local 1999 members supported Sanders as he attacked our government for awarding billions in U.S. contracts to UT and then doing nothing when the company announced that 2,000 jobs would be going to Mexico solely because of much cheaper labor and virtually no regulation.

We could certainly moan about labor’s lost opportunity, and had the labor movement united behind Sanders he would have been the nominee and very likely the President. However, the real lesson of the last year is our need to build a broader and more powerful movement for change. For years to come, individual labor unions will most likely pursue conflicting political strategies. But those of us who believe that we need a new political movement demanding real change, we have now built the largest movement for that change in decades. It is messy and still uncertain, but the political revolution of Bernie Sanders, now called Our Revolution will forge ahead endorsing candidates and ballot measures, fighting the TPP, and struggling to unite and expand on the 13 million voters who supported Sanders.

No one would claim that Our Revolution, the successor to Bernie 2016, is the only path forward. There are many other attempts to build this movement. We must do a much better job of uniting racial, economic and environmental justice movements. But the question for active union members is more about the future than the past. Do we believe that we can win? Are we ready to build a political movement that works inside and outside the Democratic Party without attacking ourselves? Can we unite around defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other destructive policies and in doing so show that we can win?

We learned from Bernie’s campaign that real change is possible. We learned that many Americans are not afraid to consider themselves workers, and not just middle class. We learned that we can fight for racial justice as well as economic justice and that doing both at the same time makes us stronger. But mostly we learned that it all starts by actually believing and acting like “We Can Win.”

 

Addendum:

 

First, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly two million and in any other democracy she would be President elect.  The barriers to a 21st century democracy for our nation range far beyond voting rights and big money in politics.

Second, Obama far out polled Clinton in key working class counties in PA, MI, WI and even small towns in Maine.  Those who look for racism as the key variable in Trump’s win need to look much deeper at voting results rather than projecting simple answers.  The destruction of manufacturing jobs through public policy neglect and bad trade deals is a major factor explaining Clinton’s loss in those states and a major problem for Democrats who ignore it.

Recent leaks of emails from the DNC and the Clinton campaign chair, indicate that the party elite were improperly involved assisting the nomination of Hillary Clinton in every way possible, and that the Super PACs supporting the Clinton campaign were willing to use divisive and even hateful tactics.

Bernie Sanders is now among the most popular electeds in our nation.  His narrative of working class unity and his focus on free higher education, better health care, peace and justice, fair trade not trade for investor profit, and infrastructure aimed at communities of color and other impacted communities is the basis for Our Revolution, the successor to his campaign, as well as other progressive organizations.

So as we go forward, are we willing to organize around our values, including in primary elections, rather than accept the view of the Democratic Party establishment about who can raise money and therefore who can win?  We can’t just speak out about Citizens United and then defer to those who use every opening to dominate nominations with their dollars.

The Democratic Party itself badly needs structural reform if Democrats are to win the support of working class voters.  There needs to be a real priority on registering millions of voters of color and others trapped by our outrageous voter registration procedures while at the same time we need to fight for automatic voter registration as Alaska just adopted in this election.  We also need to be ready to support independent candidates when they represent our values.  We need to use ballot measures to promote democracy as even this year most pro democracy ballot measures won across the nation.

President Trump will immediately have the two openings necessary to control the NLRB, and begin to roll back the last eight years of Board decisions.  Likely anti-collective bargaining legislation in the Congress and the States will put us on defense again.  But this time can we not only resist, but also build a political movement that speaks to our dreams and aspirations, so that we are campaigning for our values as we fight for the future?

Link to Weingarten and Casey article in series
http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/11/22/on-the-contrary-american-labor-and-the-2016-elections/ 

 

Why Hillary Clinton Deserved Labor’s Support

“On the Contrary”

 

Did the Sanders Campaign Represent a Missed Opportunity for the U.S. Labor Movement?: A Debate

 

As our readers know, the labor movement was divided during the Democratic Party primary season over whether to support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination.  We invited contributions from both sides to debate those differences.  Larry Cohen, past president of the Communications Workers of America argued on behalf of the Sanders option, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, together with Leo Casey, president of the Albert Shanker Institute, argued on behalf of the Clinton nomination.  They delivered their initial arguments in early September and then responded to each other.  Both authors assumed, as many readers also did, a Clinton victory.  When the election results came in, Randi Weingarten and Leo Casey asked to rewrite their essay in order to take fuller account of the outcome of the election.  Larry Cohen agreed to this arrangement.  However, he elected to leave his essay as originally written.  He has added a brief addendum that also takes account of the election results. Since Weingarten and Casey withdrew their original contribution, it no longer made sense to publish the replies each had written in response to each other.  Readers should keep in mind that the main part of Cohen’s contribution was written without knowing how the election would turn out, while the Weingarten and Casey essay was written after that outcome had been decided. 

 

From the earliest days of the Presidential campaign, it was clear that 2016 would not be a typical election year: many voters were feeling cheated out of the “American dream” and deeply angry with the political establishment. The Republican Party was captured by its most illiberal and intolerant forces. In the person of Donald Trump, we will now confront a President who has brought into the mainstream of American politics and government a toxic brew of overt racial, ethnic and religious bigotry, misogyny, authoritarianism, appeals to political violence and attacks on immigrants and unions.

[1]Trump’s election demands a full and searching examination of the causes for this defeat. It is a time for reflection and thoughtful analysis, not recrimination and finger-pointing: we need to inform what will now be a decisive struggle to defend democracy and to regain the initiative for progressive policies that empower working people. In that spirit, we offer the following thoughts on the subject.

The AFT and most of the American labor movement endorsed Hillary for President, both in the Democratic primaries and the general election, as the candidate that we believed had the best chance to win the 2016 election and enact a progressive policy agenda. Against a Republican candidate who sorely lacked the experience, judgment and temperament to be President, Hillary Clinton was the most experienced and qualified candidate of the last century, and her election as the first woman President would have been an historic advance for the cause of gender equality. She brought a lifetime of successful work on behalf of progressive causes to the campaign, and under her leadership and in partnership with Bernie Sanders and his campaign, the Democratic Party adopted the most progressive platform of its history in 2016.  Clinton had a particular knack for translating ideas and aspirations for change into government policies that make a difference.

What went wrong?

When a candidate loses the way Clinton did, by razor thin margins in a number of battleground states, one can point to a number of factors each one of which made the difference between victory and defeat. Most important were the anti-democratic features of the American political system. As we write in the week immediately following the election, the tally has Clinton winning the popular ballot by as much two million votes. It is only the archaic Electoral College that has translated that unambiguous margin into a defeat: in every other democratic polity, she would be the victor. Moreover, voter suppression laws in Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin clearly made the difference in those key battleground states, tipping the Electoral College to the Republicans. And while the total Democratic vote for the House of Representatives is currently ahead of the Republican vote, gerrymandering has delivered a 40+ seat Republican majority in that Congressional body.

The 2016 election also witnessed the unprecedented interventions of the FBI and the Russian state, to the benefit of Trump. The baseless letter from FBI Director Comey, raising doubts about Clinton’s e-mails that the agency had in fact already reviewed and cleared, reversed her momentum late in the campaign. (Trump confidante and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has acknowledged the decisive impact of Comey’s letter.[2]) The emails of Clinton campaign and DNC staff hacked by intelligence agencies of the Russian state and released at critical times and in coordination with the Trump campaign through WikiLeaks also took a toll. Both developments made the Trump victory possible, and both are deeply troubling for the future of free and fair elections that are the cornerstone of every democracy.

The Clinton campaign, the DNC and those of us in the labor movement could have secured electoral victory with different decisions in a few pivotal areas. The Democratic vote in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin could have been shored up with timely interventions and additional resources, keeping those traditionally ‘blue’ states from turning ‘red’ by the narrowest of margins. While Clinton and the Democratic platform had good policy proposals for addressing economic inequality and fostering good jobs, the campaign never put them together in a compelling message that connected with blue collar workers in ‘rust belt’ states ravaged by corporate dominated economic globalization. Too many of these workers concluded that the Democrats would not bring real change to their lives. Going forward, American labor and the Democratic Party must develop an economic program and highlight class issues that convincingly take on what have been decades of economic losses to working people in the American heartland.

Yet tragically there was more than a class dynamic at work: many white male workers viewed their economic interests through a distorting prism of race and sex. The 2016 election saw a significant backlash vote in which ‘others’ – most prominently, people of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, Muslims and Jews – were scapegoated for the declining economic and social status of white male workers. Trump’s strategy for breaking through the ‘blue wall’ of Democratic states was to appeal to the racial, sexual and religious fears and resentments of white voters, and he was sufficiently successful at this gambit to win a close election. His overt racism, misogyny and bigotry has done real damage to America’s struggle to overcome these evils, and left many Americans deeply fearful for their place in our society. In the dark times ahead, the American labor must hold true to our core values, continuing both the battle for the economic interests of all working people and the struggle against racial, sexual and religious oppression.

Throughout the 2016 campaign, there were those who argued that it was more important for American unions to advance a broad vision of economic justice and long term, maximalist goals than to focus on winning this election. In this view, a Trump victory was an acceptable price to be paid if it results in a future greater good. Some even contended, against all historical precedent, that a Trump victory would hasten that greater good. Unfortunately, we will now witness the damage that a Trump victory holds for the labor movement’s quest for economic justice and for the social democratic policies it advocates.

In 2016, abstentions and votes for the Greens and Libertarians were votes lost to a repudiation of Trumpism, and they made the difference in key battleground states such as Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. We will pay a heavy price for the sectarian politics that trained its fire on the Democratic Party and liberalism, viewing the 2016 ballot as an expressive ‘protest’ vote of moral purity. Michael Harrington nailed it: labor needs a political strategy that fashions itself as the “left wing of the possible.” While our political vision must be bold and far-seeing, it cannot be divorced from what is achievable in the here and now.

Others have argued that if Bernie Sanders had been the Democratic nominee, Trump would have been defeated. In their view, the Bernie Sanders campaign was a “lost opportunity” for the American labor movement, and the great preponderance of American unions that endorsed Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination could have better promoted a labor agenda and victory in November by endorsing Sanders.

Without question, the Sanders campaign’s spotlight on economic inequality and the corrosive, anti-democratic effect of unlimited money in our political system was a valuable contribution to our national political discourse. This focus was particularly important in the campaign’s successful engagement of millennials in the political process. The integration of the Sanders message into the Democratic Party platform was important, and made the Democratic campaign better. In this regard, the Sanders campaign accomplished what was its original raison d’être.

Yet the notion that Sanders could have won the Democratic nomination and gone on to victory in the general election, if only he had been endorsed by labor, does not stand up to close scrutiny. Without relitigating the campaign, it must be noted that Hillary Clinton won far more votes and elected delegates. Throughout the primary season, the Sanders campaign demonstrated weaknesses as well as strengths: his support was strongest in states which were less diverse and more rural, and in states which employed caucuses, where intensity of sentiment carries more weight than a broad popular base. His backing in the African-American and Latino communities was weak.

While Sanders’ supporters have pointed to his favorable ratings in opinion polls as evidence that his campaign could have been victorious in November, he had never gone through the gauntlet of the right wing attack machine. Instead from the start of the 2016 campaign, unrelenting fire from those quarters was concentrated on Clinton as the likely Democratic nominee, following on decades of attacks which had taken a real toll on her popularity. (It should also be noted that many of those attacks were misogynist in character.) If Sanders had won the nomination, he would have faced an onslaught of similar assaults, as Kurt Eichenwald and Will Saletan have shown.[3] As unfair as these attacks would have been, Sanders would have been savaged over such issues as his past praise for Fidel Castro, the Cuban Communist regime and the Sandinistas, and his 1960s era publications that celebrated youth sexuality, warned of the dangers of fluoridated water and speculated on social conformity as the cause of cancer. Republicans had prepared a two-inch think ‘opposition’ dossier that included plans for using a decades old piece of fiction Sanders wrote to accuse him of being an apologist for rape. That these issues were irrelevant to the great questions of the direction of the nation would have mattered not a whit, any more than it did in the manufactured controversies over Benghazi and Clinton’s health or the overblown tempest over her emails. From the ‘swiftboating’ of John Kerry’s record as a war hero to the ‘birther’ attacks on Barack Obama’s legitimacy as the first African-American president, such attacks have become a mainstay of right wing politics. They must figure in our political calculations.

None of us have a crystal ball that can predict with certainty how Sanders would have fared in the November election, had he won the nomination. But is seems to us that a Sanders defeat on the order of the 1972 McGovern campaign was more likely than a Sanders victory. In our youth we both worked for McGovern, as part of a passionate student movement that shared much with the millennial support for Sanders. A landslide defeat on the scale of 1972 would have dissipated the progressive energy of the Sanders campaign, much as it did to the McGovern movement. Instead the Sanders campaign ended on a high note, and is now positioned to play an important role in shaping Democratic Party politics going forward.

American unions will face difficult challenges over the next four years. The stakes will be high, as American democracy itself has come under attack. It will be important to learn from our setbacks in the 2016 election as we confront Trumpism. We must articulate a powerful message which targets both economic inequality and the politics of hate and bigotry. Our program must combine the creation of well-paying jobs, access to economic advancement through a robust system of public education, a defense of democratic institutions and norms and a respect for the dignity and rights of all Americans.

Trump enters office with unprecedented high disapproval ratings and without the mandate of a popular vote victory: there is good reason to believe that a revitalized and reinvigorated progressive movement, with American labor at its core, will defeat Trumpism with the right message. We remain optimistic about the long term political prospects of American labor and a progressive policy agenda on behalf of working people.

 

Link to Larry Cohen’s original submission for On the Contrary
http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/11/23/american-labor-and-the-2016-elections-we-believe-that-we-can-win-larry-responds/

 

Notes

[1]

[2] Grace Guarnieri, “Corey Lewandowski says Donald Trump should thank FBI Director James Comey” in Salon available at http://www.salon.com/2016/11/17/corey-lewandowski-says-donald-trump-should-thank-fbi-director-james-comey/.

[3] Kurt Eichenwald, “The Myths Democrats Swallowed That Cost Them the Presidential Election” in Newsweek available at http://www.newsweek.com/myths-cost-democrats-presidential-election-521044 and Will Saletan, “Polls Say Bernie Is More Electable Than Hillary. Don’t Believe Them.” in Slate available at http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/04/polls_say_bernie_is_more_electable_than_hillary_don_t_believe_them.html

Left Wing of The Possible; Nina Turner Excerpt

 

Amid a volatile and unorthodox presidential season, Senator Bernie Sanders’ supporters have denounced the outsized political and economic power of the corporate elite, and brought socialism back into consideration, especially among young voters. While this platform energized a broad cross-section of the country, it struggled to earn the broader support – especially among African Americans, Latinos, and organized labor – that an enduring movement would require. What will now be required to maintain the momentum and build a movement of the 99 percent? How do supporters build on the progressive message carried through the Sanders Campaign? What are the new possibilities and challenges? What comes next?