Engaging with Democrats

Disillusionment with Democrats is one of the oldest—and most familiar—sentiments of labor progressives. Sadly, the first twenty-one months of the Obama era haven’t done much to alter those feelings. Without question, there has been progress on a number of critical issues—economic stimulus, health care reform, financial reform, key appointments at OSHA and the National Mediation Board (which oversees railway and airline labor relations)—which would have been unimaginable in a Republican presidency.

But the frequent ideological and political vacillation of the new administration and its congressional allies on a range of issues has given rise to a surge of anger and frustration among labor activists who had fervently hoped that Obama’s victory would at last inaugurate a new progressive era in American politics. Especially in the weeks leading up to the vote on health care reform in late March, as numerous labor-backed members of Congress abandoned those who had worked so hard to create a powerful Democratic majority, feelings of betrayal among labor political activists were palpable and deep.

The situation is immeasurably worse at the state level, where devastating budget crises have driven debate over fiscal and budget issues, as well as attitudes toward public sector unionism, dramatically to the right. In state capitals like Trenton and Albany, it is almost as if the Obama victory, and the potential ideological shift it signified, never happened. The vicious rightward skid of state and local politics, drenched in the economic anxiety of the Great Recession and echoing powerfully of Reaganism and California’s Proposition 13, has been stunning to labor and community activists.

In New York State, for example, an incipient property tax revolt and relentless editorializing against tax increases on the wealthy seem to have paralyzed Democratic legislative majorities struggling to close a $9 billion budget gap. The state’s first black governor, David Paterson, has warned that the wealthy—the putative engines of the state’s economy—will flee if required to endure their fair share of the state’s tax burden. He vociferously argued that New York’s historically generous social spending represents a kind of “addiction”—as if pre-kindergarten programs, rebuilt infrastructure, small class sizes, a robust higher education system, and a clean environment are the symptoms of some kind of rare disease. Leading Democrats refuse to impose even temporary tax levies on the bloated bonuses of Wall Street bankers, even though 2009 financial sector profits would simply not exist were it not for the massive—multi-trillion—taxpayer-funded bailout of 2008.

The vicious rightward skid of state and local politics has been stunning to labor and community activists.

Across the Hudson, much of New Jersey’s Democratic Party establishment has joined an escalating public crusade to pin the state’s persistent fiscal problems on the allegedly excessive compensation of teachers and public employees. In this, they deliberately pit struggling property taxpayers—who have lost any hope of pension or health care security in Wal-Mart America—against middle-income public employees desperately hoping to preserve their modest pensions and decent, though hardly extravagant, health care benefits. Perhaps the state’s loudest Democratic proponent of this approach has been Ironworker leader-turned-state senator, Steve Sweeney. Upon becoming the Senate majority leader earlier this year, Sweeney rammed through a package of bills, slashing pension benefits for future public employees and imposing health care cost-shifting on any public sector contract that does not already include it. So much for collective bargaining.

The bills sailed through the Democratic-controlled state senate with only two abstentions and not a single vote in opposition; only a handful of Democratic assembly members risked editorial board wrath by voting against the package. Sweeney is actually playing junior partner in this crusade to Republican Governor Chris Christie, who has won national conservative acclaim for his vitriolic attacks on the state’s largest union, the New Jersey Education Association. The situation has deteriorated so far that Christie felt comfortable earlier this year accusing the teachers of using their students as “drug mules” to advance a parochial political agenda.

Many labor activists, myself included, would not have predicted this depressing state of affairs on November 4, 2008, when Obama’s movement-like campaign triumphed in the context of the worst crisis of capitalism in seventy years. A massive outpouring of hope and activism, ideologically inchoate as it was, had mobilized millions of youthful and of-color voters in unprecedented fashion. The Reagan-Gingrich-Bush worldview, a toxic mix of imperial adventure and blind faith in unregulated markets and trickledown economics, had collapsed spectacularly in a self-induced implosion of reckless financial speculation and unfettered greed. Surely a new era of progressive change was at hand.

But as it turned out—and certainly we should have anticipated this—it takes more than a change of presidential leadership to bring about major economic and political change. From the very first, Obama hewed to the rhetoric and practice of “bipartisanship,” almost inexplicable in the face of a Republican minority that seemed resolutely and unanimously committed to opposing even the tiniest departure from right-wing political economy. The fruits of bipartisanship were bitter: the stimulus package was watered down with tax cuts to win the votes of a handful of Republicans, undermining its effectiveness and achieving nothing in terms of inoculation against the right-wing message machine. The administration allowed conservative Montana Democrat Max Baucus months for a fruitless pursuit of Republican support for health care reform, reinforcing the appearance of congressional dysfunction and allowing the Tea Party time to mobilize for the raucous town hall meetings. For no apparent reason, over a year went by without any appointments to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which had been deadlocked with three vacant seats for nearly two years. And before finally reversing course late in March, Obama even declined to make recess appointments to the NLRB in February, reportedly out of a desire to avoid antagonizing Republicans. And, of course, the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts killed any hope of enacting desperately needed reform of the nation’s labor laws.

With the spring 2010 recess appointments to the NLRB, there is hope of pro-labor rule-making that might ease the way for organizing.

But the Obama administration’s reluctance to pursue a straightforwardly progressive strategy is only part of the problem. In the absence of clear progressive leadership, at the grassroots level as well as in the White House, the economic anxiety generated by the deepest postwar recession has taken a predominantly right-wing populist form. The White House’s slowness to pin blame for the collapse on Wall Street chicanery, the virtually unconditional bailout of the nation’s largest financial institutions, and an economic team composed primarily of Wall Street insiders, allowed the Limbaughs and the Becks to make big government—rather than its opposite, deregulation—the culprit in the financial collapse. Anxiety about the racial transformation of America, led for the first time by a black president and gradually becoming a majority minority population, also clearly plays a critical role. Over half of the Tea Partiers, 89 percent of whom are white, say that too much has been made of the problems of blacks in recent years, and a similar percentage say that the administration is overly concerned about the problems of poor people. Ninety-two percent believe Obama is moving the country toward socialism, a laughable proposition for an administration whose economic team is led by what Robert Kuttner early on described as a “Team of Rubins.”

Nevertheless, the achievements of the last twenty-one months should not be discounted or minimized. The administration’s ultimate determination to wage partisan warfare to achieve passage of health care reform seems to have marked a liberating transition. The plan itself was deeply compromised, and labor was infuriated by the president’s persistent support for taxing higher-cost health plans. But a determined campaign forced the administration to retreat on 80 percent of the impact of that proposal and, in the end, the passage of reform signified a victory for the belief that public goods, provided by government and funded by taxpayers, are an essential element of a fair society—a decisive repudiation, however flawed and contradictory, of the dominant view of the previous three decades. The spring 2010 recess appointments to the NLRB mean that the long logjam at the board will be broken, and there is hope of pro-labor rule-making that might ease the way for at least some organizing. The National Mediation Board issued a critical rule change strengthening the organizing rights of hundreds of thousands of airlines workers. And the administration’s commitment to pursue partisan financial reform seems to suggest an overdue realization that for the president to address the actual needs of society, Republicans will have to be bypassed. Further, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s charges of outright corruption at Goldman Sachs may be one of those turning points in the zeitgeist, shifting the political climate as the public focuses on the greed, speculation, and dishonesty at the root of the Wall Street collapse.

How, then, should labor political activists deal with this most recent bout of disillusionment with Democrats? Profound frustration has prompted some to call for labor to break its ties with the Democratic Party completely, and organize a truly independent labor or progressive party. This is a hopeless fantasy. High school civics provide the primary reasons: in a non-proportional system of representation with winner take all, single district elections, opting to support third-party candidates who have no chance of winning means isolation from the actual arena of legislative decision-making. History is littered with the wreckage of these fantasies, which have been more or less energetic, depending on the state of mass movements at the time they arose. I was personally involved in the 1980 incarnation of such hopes, the Citizens Party which, buoyed by the anti-nuclear power movement in the wake of near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island, ran environmentalist Barry Commoner for president. We believed a significant split in labor was possible because of Carter’s economic turn to the right, which included supporting deregulation of both the airline and trucking industries as the long ascendancy of right-wing economic ideology got underway. As the Party’s New York State organizer, I repeatedly argued that there was little difference between Carter and Reagan and that the time had come to build a truly independent party founded on principles of economic democracy. In the end, there was no break in labor, and Commoner drew an insignificant percentage of the vote. Ten months after the election, when Reagan fired over eleven thousand striking air traffic controllers, I was permanently disabused of the notion that there are no significant differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Some have called for labor to break its ties with the Democratic Party, and organize an independent labor or progressive party. This is a hopeless fantasy

Further, the Democratic Party has demonstrated enormous ideological elasticity, especially in times of great crisis, and has moved sharply to the left under the pressure of highly mobilized mass movements at several crucial moments in our history. The most dramatic example of this dynamic came during the Second New Deal of 1935, when the most radical Congress in American history and the Roosevelt administration collaborated to enact Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the Works Progress Administration, the Wealth Tax Act, and the Rural Electrification Act, among other reforms, in three short summer months. The Democrats were responding then to the pressure of a massive working-class mobilization that began early in the Great Depression and culminated in the massive strikes of 1934. By the end of Roosevelt’s re-election campaign in 1936, the pragmatic patrician was declaring that the forces of “organized money are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred… I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces have met their master.” Similarly, thirty years later, Lyndon Johnson parlayed the power of the civil rights movement into the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, and the War on Poverty. When Johnson drawled, “We shall overcome” in his nationally televised speech proposing the Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. was moved to tears. This Democratic adaptability has historically foreclosed the emergence of majoritarian third-party efforts.

At the same time, labor simply cannot afford to disengage from the legislative process. The last twenty-one months may have been frustrating, but a McCain presidency would have been devastating: no health care reform, instead of a flawed, but historic, step forward; a far more paltry stimulus package which would have left the economy in even worse condition; anti-labor appointments to the NLRB, instead of delayed pro-labor recess appointments; and little hope of significant financial or immigration reform legislation. Similarly, as difficult as the tenure of Governor Corzine was for New Jersey state workers, the Christie era is already much, much worse. Whatever his flaws, Corzine at least believed in collective bargaining. The difference that makes in the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers is immeasurable.

But continued unconditional support for Democrats is also clearly unacceptable. The challenge is how to go about building independent political power for labor and its allies while staying engaged in the work of fighting critical legislative battles. A number of strategies are possible:

 Mount strategic primary or third-line challenges to anti-labor Democrats. Led by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a number of unions joined with Move On to support Arkansas Lt. Governor Bill Halter’s challenge to the senator from Wal-Mart, Blanche Lincoln. By investing millions in a challenge to the right-wing incumbent, labor sent the Democratic leadership a clear message that it will no longer support anti-labor Democrats simply in order to maintain the party’s majorities. In a primary run-off election in early June, Halter fell several thousand votes short of a stunning upset, but the point was made nevertheless. In upstate New York, community activists and a number of major unions are exploring a similar strategy to punish Congressman Michael Arcuri, who was elected with vigorous labor support in 2006 but who switched from a “no” to a “yes” vote on health care reform in March. That betrayal ignited outrage among New York labor and progressives.
 Utilize “fusion” or cross-endorsement voting by building independent third parties that usually endorse major party candidates. Over the last dozen years, New York’s Working Families Party (WFP) has built an impressive track record of both issue work and electoral power, becoming a major progressive force in state politics. Under New York’s unique system, which permits candidates’ names to appear on multiple ballot lines at the same time, the WFP has endorsed major party candidates, most often Democrats, who support its legislative agenda of progressive taxation, high-road economic development, and social investment. The WFP won an increase in the minimum wage in 2004 despite Republican control of the governorship and the state senate, helped win passage of the largest progressive tax increase in the nation in 2009 in order to stave off devastating budget cuts, and won passage of landmark “Green Jobs” legislation later in that session. The potential of fusion as a tactic for building independent power is also reflected in the success of the WFP’s younger cousin in Connecticut, which has developed into a major player in Hartford on issues such as paid sick days and closing corporate tax loopholes.

The challenge is how to go about building independent political power for labor and its allies while staying engaged in the work of fighting critical legislative battles.

The problem with fusion, of course, is that it is legal in only a handful of states, having been outlawed by a coalition of railroad and banking interests in most places in the early 20th century in the years following William Jennings Bryan’s Populist-Democratic fusion candidacy for president in 1896. The track record of labor-backed fusion in New York and Connecticut argues for labor to devote a significant chunk of its political resources to opportunistic campaigns to re-legalize fusion voting. A year ago, the Oregon legislature did just that, and the Oregon Party is now engaged in a challenging campaign to achieve ballot status under state law. Already, however, it has managed to elevate debate about the creation of a public bank, modeled on North Dakota’s, which will serve the interests of ordinary Oregonians, rather than its investor class.

Labor will no longer support anti-labor Democrats simply in order to maintain the party’s majorities.

 Take to the streets. As a labor political director, I am obsessed with elections and legislative strategies. But what has been conspicuously—and bafflingly—absent from the struggles of the last twenty-one months has been a mobilized, insurgent mass movement. I argued—mostly to myself—that labor should have planned a massive, Solidarity Day-style demonstration on the first warm day in the spring of 2009, to send an early, powerful message to the Obama administration that it must deliver on working people’s demands for stronger organizing rights, massive economic stimulus, and real health care reform. Instead, it was the Tea Party that took the initiative to the streets last summer. Labor and its allies—USAction, Move On, environmental organizations, organizations of women and people of color, student groups, Jobs with Justice, etc.—must devote greater resources and energy to popular mobilization.
 Take the long view. Hopes of a dramatic progressive shift in the nation’s political culture because of Obama’s election were overblown. Obama’s victory represented a decisive rejection of the war in Iraq and the failed economic policies of the Bush administration. It also represented an undefined aspiration for change. The moment cries out for a new ideological clarity about the role of government in mitigating the excesses of markets run amok, from Wall Street to the Gulf Coast. But it now seems clear that decisive movement toward those values will require more than a single electoral victory. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, will have to take to the streets to force the society toward greater social justice, economic equity, respect for workers’ rights, and a sustainable economy. Our job is to do whatever we can to encourage and prepare for the moments when those movements arise.

The Obama election opened up the possibility of a progressive revival, and labor must continue to search for tactics and strategies that can push through that opening. Patience, persistence, and experimentation are the watchwords of the day. Simply abandoning the Democrats won’t get us where we want to go, and the consequences of such a strategy could be catastrophic. Merely sitting back and hoping that Democrats will get the job done is also clearly not a viable strategy. The challenge is to build a movement, both in the streets and at the polling places, which can push Democrats and the society from below toward a new progressive era.