Labor’s Quadrennial Condition: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

In the Fall of 2012, U.S. unions found themselves, per usual, caught between a scary Republican rock and a dreary Democratic hard place. Regardless of whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama wins the presidential election, the period ahead will be very difficult for workers and their organizations. If the Romney-Ryan ticket wins, labor faces a swift return to the unbridled union-bashing and ruinously pro-corporate policies of the George W. Bush era. Yet, after four years of Obama’s “change you can believe in,” you have to be a magical thinker to believe that labor’s salvation will be assured by the president’s re-election.

In the top officialdom and activist layer of local unions, labor boosterism for Obama abounds nevertheless. Organized labor has always acted as if “lesser evilism” was an insufficient basis for rallying workers at election time. So instead of acknowledging the shortcomings of Obama and the Democrats—which disappointed union officials have been pointing out to the rank-and-file since 2009—national unions are undermining their own credibility (as they do every four years) with inflated claims for their endorsed presidential candidate.

As labor left activists Michael Hirsch and Jason Schulman noted recently in Jacobin, “the line taken by the AFL-CIO today is that the November election poses a choice between two economic worldviews. Would that be true. The real sub-text is: ‘Vote Obama: He’ll screw us less.’ ”

A Friend In Need?

During the president’s first term, quite a few union dues-payers noticed that their pleas for help fell on deaf ears among labor’s supposed friends in Washington and many state capitols. Since 2009, major differences between Democratic and Republican Party positions on free trade, labor and the economy, corporate power, war and peace, civil liberties, and environmental protection have in reality (if not rhetoric), become harder to detect. This year, as many reporters have noted, Obama’s re-election has become, for the president, almost an end in itself; rarely do voters hear any appeal from the White House to elect more Democrats to the House and Senate, despite Congressional majorities (and, in the Senate, a “super-majority”) being a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for implementing the party’s putative platform (including it’s watered-down labor planks).

So now, if the past is prologue, four more years of Obama’s “bi-partisan” approach will be no less problematic for labor. The president’s second term agenda may even include a lame-duck tilt toward greater austerity, in the name of “deficit reduction” and “entitlement reform.” (For more on that happening, sooner rather than later, see If this scenario unfolds, labor’s strategy of clinging desperately to the coat-tails of the Democratic Party, will not feel much different, to many union members, than getting kicked to the curb directly by the GOP. It will be increasingly hard to distinguish between the Democrats’ disinterest in collective bargaining and the Republicans’ active hostility to it, between Obama’s professed support for Social Security and Medicare and GOP determination to privatize both programs.

In short, whatever the Electoral College outcome in November, U.S. unions will get little respite from their many defensive battles of the last three decades. On the left, during this painful period of retreat and defeat, the generally agreed-upon formula for turning the tide in this one-sided class war has been a “to-do” list more easily recited than implemented. In some combination or fashion, most labor leftists agree that unions should do more systematic and radical membership education, become internally democratic, engage in direct action on the job, organize the unorganized (particularly foreign-born workers), build cross-border solidarity, and get involved in broader community-labor alliances leading to greater independence from mainstream politics.

The Wall Street Meltdown

Now, if this was a simple recipe to follow, there would have been far more U.S. union transformation than we’ve seen so far. Instead, thousands of dedicated labor activists have toiled diligently, for years, to change their own small (or larger) corner of the “house of labor,” while myriad private and now public sector enemies have tried to demolish the whole shaky structure. Many labor-management stand-offs have slowed the overall process of union marginalization, locally or regionally, but not reversed it overall.

While making the union bargaining climate even worse, the great Wall Street meltdown, and its continuing after-shocks, opened many eyes to the workings of the capitalist system. More than a few Americans discovered, at great personal cost, that the empire has no clothes. It has plenty of camo for sure– for well-equipped military forces deployed, at great tax-payer expense, around the globe. But the underpinnings of the U.S. financial system itself proved surprisingly shaky. When push came to shove in 2008, there was much emergency relief for those at the top of the heap and far less for the millions of wage-earners and home-owners, at the bottom, who experienced sudden downward mobility due to lay-offs, pay cuts, loss of home equity, and the evaporation of retirement savings.

By 2011–for the first time, in a long time–it appeared that a militant minority of “99 percenters” was finally responding appropriately to “1%” control of politics and the economy. Both the public employee fightback in Wisconsin and then the more diffuse and radical Occupy Wall Street movement became galvanizing experiences for several hundred thousand direct participants and a much larger audience of activists throughout the country.

Unfortunately, neither unexpected grassroots response to working class disempowerment and the (not unrelated) growth in economic inequality had a sufficient short-term impact on electoral politics. Only in Ohio was labor and its allies able to repeal, via popular referendum, a newly enacted Republican ban on public sector bargaining; in Wisconsin, union-backed efforts to recall Governor Scott Walker failed to achieve that goal so his repeal of government workers’ rights remains partially intact (although subject to continuing litigation over its constitutionality).

Both Midwestern counter-campaigns, plus OWS in far more places, demonstrated that Corporate America’s “divide and conquer” strategy could be thwarted. To rescind the anti-union legislation passed by Ohio Republicans, private and public sector workers collected 1.3 million signatures on their referendum petitions and then overcame government worker scapegoating, by the GOP, in the November, 2011 vote. In even more high-profile fashion, the “Wisconsin Uprising” united private and public sector union members, while enlisting the support of citizens dependent on all kinds of tax-supported state and local programs. Twenty months later, the September, 2012, strike by 25,000 Chicago school teachers provided yet another example of the powerful synergy of union reform, internal democracy, workplace militancy, and effective community organizing.

A Lesson Plan From Chicago

Within the Chicago Teachers Union, members first regained control over their union (through a leadership change), then engaged in systematic internal organizing to rebuild union structures, and next, carefully prepared for their September, 2012, contract showdown by doing systematic outreach to the community to neutralize, as much as possible, anti-union sentiment whipped up by city hall, the school board, and corporate-backed “education reform” groups. The expressions of bi-partisan solidarity with Democratic Mayor (and former White House chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel—that immediately flowed from the GOP presidential ticket when the teachers’ strike began—was a fitting coda to the first half of the Obama era, with its “Race to the Top,” that left public school teachers headed for the bottom.

Now, as in the past, the best starting point for broader union revitalization is not pie-in-the-sky blueprints that have little connection to current reality. Rather, it’s the actual worker organizing and strike activity that has bravely defied recent labor-relations trends and demonstrated, by example, that another way is possible.

As Canadian union activist Peter Brogan observes about the CTU strike, “the biggest lesson for labor, especially public sector unions, is that reaching out to the public for support requires that you make your struggle their struggle. It has been vital for the CTU to cast this battle as one over the future of public education, not simply improvements to salary and working conditions services. By making the contract fight a component of a larger struggle against the corporatization of public schools, the CTU has provided public sector unions with a new model of resistance and unionism.”

Militant teachers, more than most trade unionists, know that Obama has not been on their side, in Chicago or anywhere else. So a bit more union leadership candor about the limits of White House sympathy for labor might better align official rhetoric with the workplace reality experienced by the rank-and-file. For example, no amount of election year cheerleading for the president can erase the fact that his biggest domestic policy achievement, enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), will not reduce management pressure for costly benefit givebacks. (PPACA also fails to address the needs of millions of workers, who lack bargaining rights but whose income level makes them ineligible for the expanded public coverage that will become available in many states via Medicaid). As long as labor, as a whole, remains saddled with a wasteful, inefficient system of job-based private insurance coverage, even workers employed by hugely profitable firms like Verizon, General Electric, or Caterpillar will face further demands for health care cost-shifting.

Casting a protest vote for a third party presidential candidate who supports a single payer system (like Jill Stein of the Green Party this year) was a hard sell, in labor circles, when Ralph Nader made real health care reform a centerpiece of his 2000 campaign. Only two small independent unions (the United Electrical Workers and the now AFL-CIO-affiliated California Nurse Association) broke with the Democrats (and the rest of labor) 12 years ago to back Nader. None will be making similar forays into independent politics this year.

A Green Mountain Model?

Yet, at the local and state level, in future election cycles, there is far more that organized labor could be doing to reduce its dependence on disappointing Democrats. In Vermont–that small northeastern oasis in an otherwise parched national political landscape—progressives have helped transform a one-time Republican redoubt into a laboratory for successful third party campaigns and cutting-edge grassroots organizing around health care and other issues.

Since 1981, socialist Bernie Sanders’ independent campaigns for mayor of Burlington, the U.S. House of Representatives, and now the U.S. Senate have helped create the space for the emergence of an unabashedly pro-labor Vermont Progressive Party (VPP). By putting pressure on Obama-style Democrats from the left, Vermont progressives helped lay the groundwork for the state’s current pioneering effort to create a Canadian-style single-payer health care system for its 600,000 citizens.

Through persistent grassroots organizing (and greater flexibility than many third parties have displayed elsewhere), the VPP now boasts seven members in the state legislature—two Senators and five representatives in the House (some of whom won with Democratic Party endorsements as well). Since Vermonters sent the first “Prog” to Montpelier in 1990, sixteen have served a total of 48 legislative terms in the state capitol. Despite the VPP’s loss of Burlington City Hall in 2012—when a non-Progressive was elected mayor for only the second time since 1981—the party retains three city council seats (out of 14) in Vermont’s largest municipality. More than 30 activists have been part of the Progressive bloc on that body over the years.

In this Fall’s election, the VPP has a good shot at increasing its delegation in the state legislature thanks to the recruitment of new candidates like fifth-generation Vermonter Mike O’Day, a telephone company customer service rep and local leader of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Taking a leaf from Sanders, VPP standard-bearers like O’Day focus, in populist fashion, on economic issues. In constituencies where working class voters might otherwise be swayed by cultural conservatism or residual rural Republicanism, Vermont Progressives have, like Sanders, won elections by championing workers rights, fair taxes, and single-payer health care.

Most impressively, given the pragmatism of organized labor, Progressives have weaned some local unions and statewide labor organizations away from knee-jerk endorsements of Democrats. According to Vermont AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Traven Leyshon, who also serves on the VPP’s state coordinating committee, “local labor leaders are now willing to support Progressive candidates over Democrats–when they’re credible–because of their pro-labor stances.”  In some cases, Leyshon says, union rank-and-filers had to over-rule the safer, more centrist candidate endorsements favored by their own union lobbyists and political directors.

Is it possible to create “Two, Three, Many Vermonts?” Who knows—but developing the capacity for greater political independence is certainly worth a try. If just a small portion of the many millions of union dollars being poured into Obama’s campaign were diverted to state and local initiatives like the VPP, we’d find out the answer, over time. And, in the meantime, more union members would have a party (or at least more political candidates) they could reliably call their own.


Steve Early worked as a New England representative for the Communications Workers of America between 1980 and 2007. As a labor journalist, he is the author, most recently, of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor from Haymarket Books. He is a longtime backer of the Vermont Progressive Party and plans to vote for Jill Stein in a state (California) where the contest between Obama and Romney is not in doubt. He can be reached at [email protected]



Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Jeff Madrick: The Reluctant Vote

By Benjamin Barber: Prudence or Principle? Why I will Vote for Obama and Why I Won’t Blame You This Year If You Don’t

By Stephen Eric Bronner: The Right, The Left, The Election: The Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and The Presidential Campaign of 2012

By Judith Stein: The Day After Election Day

By Rogers M. Smith: Progressivism, Polarization, and the 2012 Election

By Lauren Langman: Why Obama Will Win the Election . . . and the Left Should Hope So

By John Ehrenberg: How to Kill a Vampire

By Claire Snyder-Hall: The King of the 1% v. The American Republic

By Steve Early: Labor’s Quadrennial Condition: Between A Rock and A Hard Place

By Chip Berlet: Vote for Democrats—Then Organize to Kick Their Butts

By Richard Meagher: Founding Principles

By Alyson Cole: What’s Wrong with Victims?