Whether in or out of power, the Republican Party continually seeks to support, encourage and expand the power of its constituent groups. The most extreme groups, from the National Rifle Association (which represents a bare 30% of the American population) and right-wing so-called Christian conservatives to today’s ultra-national Tea Party, find a welcome and warm home in the Republican Party.
Organized labor, however, is the bastard child of the Democratic Party, almost an embarrassment which they honorably acknowledge at election time but politely ignore on key legislative votes which would benefit their most loyal and vote-rich constituency group. Republicans have no such hesitancy and can rationalize the most outrageous votes for their supporters.
Twice in the past 31 years, the Democratic Party has turned its back on opportunities to restore fairness and balance to the right of working American’s to join a union free of management harassment and threats. In return, the Democrats could have bolstered the numbers of union members who consistently vote 60-70 percent higher than the general population for Democratic candidates.
The first time was in 1979 when a labor law reform bill failed that would have corrected many of the current inequities in U.S. labor law at a time when Democrats controlled the House, Senate and White House. But the leadership failed to exert the necessary power and influence to overcome the Democratic holdouts on the vote.
There is a direct correlation between the Democrats’ failure to pass that bill, the decline of private sector union membership and the poor showing of Democrats in national elections since then. The war on private sector unions unleashed by Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, has been relentless while Democrats, like Nero, played the violin as the city burned.
During the 1990’s, the AFL-CIO used data, polls and voting results to try to convince the Clinton Administration that a vote for labor was a vote for the future of the Democratic Party. We got NAFTA in response and the Republicans got control of the House of Representatives from 1994-2006 and of the entire government from 2000-2006. Now, they’re back in control of the House.
The second opportunity to correct this situation came in 2008 when a modest version of the 1979 labor law reform bill was introduced but failed again with the Democrats in control of the House, Senate and White House. And once again, the leadership failed to exert the necessary power and influence to overcome the Democratic holdouts on the vote. It will probably be another 30 years if ever before a similar bill has a chance to pass.
No wonder that today’s new breed of right-wing Republicans has turned their sights on public employees’ unions, the last bastion of labor power in the US. They smell opportunity. They realize more than any Democrat that destroying public sector unions in their states could possibly marginalize Democratic candidates for a generation.
Wisconsin’s 14 Democratic state Senators get the big picture and have done their best to stand with labor. I fear it is too little, too late. But the lack of visible, public support from key national Democrats today is obvious and notable. Where are they on the picket line?
When I served as national political director of the Communications Workers of America, one of the largest and most politically powerful unions in the US, our national president, Morton Bahr, made a policy decision after the 2002 elections that our union would no longer be identified as a “cash machine” for the Democratic Party, not that we ever were.
CWA aggressively reached out to moderate Republicans. We even joined a moderate Republican political action committee as a way of meeting centrist Republicans in a nonthreatening environment to educate and explain our positions. We hoped that by changing our image as an arm of the Democratic Party that we could peel off enough Republic votes on key issues to overcome Democratic turncoats.
The policy failed, not because moderate Republicans were unsympathetic to our issues but because conservatives drummed out most mainstream Republicans from their party. Today’s Republican Party is now comprised largely of hard-right, ultra-nationalist “true” believers who view compromise as a pact with the devil. This “new” Republican is embodied by new comers like Wisconsin’s Governor Walker and Chris Christy of New Jersey.
We have virtually turned ourselves into a nation of tribes—like Sunnis and Shiites—–forever engaged in an “us versus them” campaign characterized by revenge politics and “get-even” legislation.
Why has there been such a weak response from the Democrats to the national union-busting policies of the Republican Party? Promoting and encouraging collective bargaining is supposed to be the policy of the United States as stated in the preamble of the National Labor Relations Law.
Since the debacle of the McGovern candidacy in 1972, the Democratic Party has been split into two evolving wings: progressive and pro-business. The strength of both wings tends to ebb and flow depending on the results of the last election.
Progressives are staunchly pro-labor and understand the correlation between strong union memberships and Democratic victories. Most progressive Democrats are in the House.
Pro-business Democrats were identified with the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council who’s most notable member was President Clinton. They stand with labor on non-controversial issues but who have jelly backbones in the face of business opposition and the potential loss of big political donations. They hold the balance of power among the Senate members.
Today, pro-business Democrats have the leadership edge and President Obama is playing the discredited Clinton “third-way” card. They are all thinking about the 2012 elections and believe standing too close with labor could somehow tarnish them.
None of them have considered the implications of a society with a weakened labor movement unable to put up even the slightest counterbalance to Corporate America, Fox News or the ultra-right.
Like the “jasmine” revolution in the Middle East, organized labor’s revival will have to be accomplished by the remaining union members who are willing to march, protest, stand up and be counted. No one—-Democrats, rich liberal supporters, progressive allies or anyone else–can fight this battle for union families. The Wisconsin workers are showing us the example. Only the future knows whether America values unions enough for labor to survive in any meaningful way.]]>