Time For Unions To Give The Democratic Party An Ultimatum

| Organize!

Above photo: Frederic J. Brown/ AFP via Getty Images.

Money spent on organizing is always well spent. You can’t say the same about political donations.

NOTE: For a long time, labor unions have supported the Democratic Party with money and organizers and they have little to show in return. The Democratic Party knows the unions believe they have no other political voice. In reality, the unions would have more power if they built it from the ground up by organizing to create more unions, develop the skills and knowledge of the rank and file and mobilize for their demands. As Hamilton Nolan points out, this would be a more strategic and effective use of their money and time. Let’s build toward a General Strike.  – MF

On Labor Day, Joe Biden did an online event with AFL-CIO pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka to talk up unions. At this point in his polit­i­cal career, Biden can do these things in his sleep. His well rehearsed grab bag of pro-union lines (”My uncle in Scran­ton, Uncle Ed, used to say, Joe, you’re labor from belt buck­le to shoe sole’”) flow out eas­i­ly. The ques­tion for America’s union mem­bers is whether any­thing tan­gi­ble will flow back to us if Biden is elect­ed, or if we will — as has hap­pened in pre­vi­ous Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tions — have to sat­is­fy our­selves with pats on the head and White House photo-ops.

Though the share of union vot­ers that vote Demo­c­ra­t­ic fluc­tu­ates, the finan­cial sup­port that major unions offer to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty does not. In 2016, labor unions in total spent well over $100 mil­lion back­ing Hillary Clin­ton, includ­ing $15 mil­lion from the AFL-CIO (to super PACs) and close to $20 mil­lion each from the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion and the SEIU. This elec­tion, the spend­ing is even more intense. The SEIU alone has pledged to spend $150 mil­lion to elect the Demo­c­ra­t­ic candidate.

All of the mon­ey that unions spend on pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates comes from the pock­ets of work­ing peo­ple. It is pre­cious. A hedge fund man­ag­er would cer­tain­ly not make a nine-fig­ure invest­ment with­out the knowl­edge that he would earn a good return; nei­ther should jan­i­tors and nurs­es. For unions, every dol­lar that is donat­ed to politi­cians is a dol­lar that is not spent on orga­niz­ing new union mem­bers. And a dol­lar spent on orga­niz­ing new union mem­bers is always a good invest­ment — par­tic­u­lar­ly when the share of Amer­i­cans who are union mem­bers has fall­en to one in ten, and is still falling. New orga­niz­ing is an exis­ten­tial issue for unions: They will either turn around their long mem­ber­ship decline, or they will slow­ly die. So it is impor­tant that polit­i­cal spend­ing by unions always be con­sid­ered in con­text. Before every dona­tion, we should ask, Is this a bet­ter use of this mon­ey than hir­ing more union orga­niz­ers, to give more work­ing peo­ple the pro­tec­tion of a union?”

Let us pause here to acknowl­edge the obvi­ous: The Repub­li­can Par­ty wants to erad­i­cate unions from exis­tence, and the Democ­rats do not. It will always be in the inter­est of labor unions to see to it that Repub­li­cans do not have con­trol of law­mak­ing, from the local to the nation­al lev­el. One of the biggest bar­ri­ers to new union orga­niz­ing are anti-union labor laws and hos­tile gov­ern­ment enforce­ment agen­cies, and chang­ing those things is part of reviv­ing unions. I do not pro­pose that unions give up on polit­i­cal influ­ence. I pro­pose instead that unions be smarter about spend­ing their mem­bers’ mon­ey in a way that grows and expands that influ­ence in the long term.

Writ­ing checks to the DNC is not the only way of exert­ing polit­i­cal influ­ence. In fact, it is a bad way. Your influ­ence lasts only for the cur­rent elec­tion cycle, and its con­tin­u­ance is premised on con­tin­ued dona­tions, and fur­ther­more, if your can­di­date los­es, you get noth­ing. It is vital that not only unions but also the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty itself rec­og­nize that grow­ing union mem­ber­ship is a direct ben­e­fit to Demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal goals, apart from any polit­i­cal dona­tions. Strong unions on their own can help achieve eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty, racial equal­i­ty, work­place safe­ty, and oth­er things that are part of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic plat­form. They are the only tool that allows work­ing peo­ple to build pow­er on their own, with­out hav­ing to ask for that pow­er to be appor­tioned by elect­ed officials.

And let’s talk about polit­i­cal pow­er and elec­tions. A strong union is an army for a cho­sen polit­i­cal can­di­date. Union mem­bers can phone bank and knock on doors and wave signs and do every­thing that a polit­i­cal dona­tion can do, besides buy­ing infi­nite attack ads. Good unions are pow­er­ful not just because they can raise funds, but because they can mobi­lize a pla­toon of high­ly moti­vat­ed peo­ple to pur­sue polit­i­cal actions. The labor movement’s mod­ern tilt towards polit­i­cal spend­ing and away from orga­niz­ing, as embod­ied by the AFL-CIO’s bud­getary choic­es, have been a failed exper­i­ment. Union den­si­ty con­tin­ues to fall, Repub­li­cans are in con­trol, and even when Democ­rats did have pow­er, polit­i­cal gains for unions were almost nonexistent.

Many in the labor move­ment are still bit­ter about the fail­ure of Barack Oba­ma to pass the Employ­ee Free Choice Act — which would have made union orga­niz­ing eas­i­er, and which was labor’s top leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ty — between 2008 and 2010, when the Democ­rats had both Con­gress and the White House. Despite heavy spend­ing to get Oba­ma elect­ed, unions were not ulti­mate­ly a top pri­or­i­ty. We do not have to repeat this deba­cle again.

This time around, the bill most desired by orga­nized labor is the PRO Act, a set of labor reforms that would amount to the most pro­gres­sive change in labor law in more than a half cen­tu­ry. (The PRO Act would be far more mean­ing­ful than what Oba­ma failed to pass). Biden, and the rest of the Democ­rats, have sworn to pass it if giv­en the chance. Fine. Since unions are already ful­ly invest­ed in 2020, they should make a sim­ple bar­gain: If the PRO Act is not signed into law by the 2022 midterms, they will not donate any mon­ey to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date in 2024. Rather, they will accept that dona­tions have not achieved the desired results, and spend that mon­ey instead on union organizing.

This does not mean ced­ing pow­er to Repub­li­cans. Repub­li­cans have won their cur­rent pow­er as unions have donat­ed hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to Democ­rats! The results of this exper­i­ment are in! Orga­nized labor should stop being the dumb mon­ey” in the polit­i­cal invest­ing game. Checks writ­ten to direct­ly sup­port pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates are a bet that may offer a pal­try pay­out, or result in a total loss. But mon­ey spent on orga­niz­ing is always well spent. It gives more work­ing peo­ple the pro­tec­tion of a union. It can direct­ly achieve the sort of mate­r­i­al gains that Democ­rats promise to leg­is­late sec­ond­hand. It builds a union army that can itself be deployed in place of polit­i­cal dona­tions. And, most cru­cial­ly, max­i­miz­ing the num­ber of peo­ple who get to expe­ri­ence union cam­paigns them­selves is one of the only real tools for spread­ing class con­scious­ness and actu­al­ly chang­ing the nature of the elec­torate itself, to move towards a nation in which a can­di­date like Bernie Sanders might one day be able to win a major­i­ty of votes.

New union orga­niz­ing is an invest­ment in per­son­al pow­er, polit­i­cal pow­er, the present, and the future. It is inher­ent­ly an invest­ment in not just the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but in the pow­er to cre­ate a bet­ter Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Had unions spent their mon­ey over the past sev­er­al pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cycles on orga­niz­ing rather than on polit­i­cal dona­tions, we would have hun­dreds of thou­sands more union mem­bers than we have today — and we would not have any few­er nation­al leg­isla­tive achieve­ments. That would be impossible.

Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

  • Stephen Morrell

    No mention here of the elephant in the room: the crying need of the US working class to forge a political party of its own that represents its class interests. The US is the only advanced capitalist country in the world without a mass working class party.

    Following the 2016 elections some AFL-CIO tops muttered that the workers need their own ‘labor’ party. Nothing came of this of course, because it was to blow off steam. The current union leadership, many of whom warm the seats of corporate boardrooms and are in thrall to the Democrats, is the main barrier to any independent working class organisation.

    It’s an absolute betrayal that the union bureaucracy hands over members’ hard-earned to any bourgeois party, any party of the class enemy, and that the party of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the current recipient of workers’ largesse is a disgrace beyond words. And the press-ganging of union members into being foot soldiers for the servants of the same oligarchs who spit on them and worse is nothing short of scandalous.

    Of course union organising is badly needed — and the union bureaucracy has an impeccable track record of failing to do it. If it weren’t for the constant stabbing in the back of all class struggles, the kowtowing and hiding behind bourgeois law to prevent effective industrial action by workers, trade union membership wouldn’t be at the historic low it is today.

    But a party of the working class that truly represents its interests is still well beyond the pale of the trade union bureaucracy, and it will remain so. A good first-stage filter to judge anyone running for union office would be whether they publicly commit to never hand over one red cent of members’ dues to any bourgeois party (including the Greens); and whether they publicly advocate for a party of and for the working class.

    Political and organisational independence of the working class from the bourgeoisie is the first crucial prerequisite for any defense and advancement of working class interests. It’s that simple.

  • cechas vodobenikov

    amerikan status anxiety precludes class consciousness—more than half of amerikans under 40–mainly liberals believe astrology is scientific according to recent polling (a passivity/dependency cult–Adorno)….47-60%, mainly atheists will believe in ghosts….”it is always the most oppressed that are the most stupid”. F Schiller
    “amerikans do not converse–they entertain each other. amerikans do not exchange ideas–they exchange images. the problem with amerikans is not Orwellian–it is huxleyan: amerikans love their oppression”. Neil Postman

  • GypsyFreyja

    Well said.

  • GypsyFreyja

    It is interesting that In These Times articles are showing up here after IT shut down its comments section and workers can no longer call out what amounts to garbage “reporting” such as the above article. I don’t disagree with everything Nolan is saying but he is still heavily cheerleading for the DNC/Democratic party candidates as if they can be reasoned with or pushed left on labor issues. Why not make the same “bargain” regarding the PRO Act with the Republican party candidates? Because Nolan is a democratic team player.

    Nolan doesn’t call for union members to stop voting for dems, only for them threaten to stop the flow of union money to them. He doesn’t call for union members (and all who work for a wage) to unite in the only real power we have which is to strike. Just pick a day and strike. Union leadership approved or not.

    The bloated, ladder climbing, management friendly bureaucracy that many unions have become is another huge reason workers are dissatisfied with, or refuse to join, unions. Union members are not blind, stupid nor children. We can read union negotiated contracts too and can tell if they are a complete sell out of workers by our union leaders.

    We should have had a Worker’s/People’s party long ago that was supported by, if not instigated by, strong union leadership. But they have not and will not support such a thing. With automation taking over more and more jobs, perhaps it is time to begin moving away from support of unions as workers’ only option and move towards worker owned businesses/industries and worker cooperatives. I think we can and should have both a party and ownership. But a workers’ party and worker ownership/coops will not come easily. They will not come from continuing to support the duopoly. Nor will they come without unity and the fortitude to stop settling for scraps and/or promises. Before either can happen we must stop bargaining and start demanding and follow up the demands with actions. It is the only way to stop abusers in all their forms.

    “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” Frederick Douglass
    A request for a “bargain” is not a demand.

  • Steven Berge

    Wish the unions would organize general strikes to demand Move to Amends 28th amendment that would attack the root of the problem. We will never be free from hyper exploitation, we will never have a voice in government as long as big money can buy government. When they give money to politicians they are trying to beat big money at its own game.

  • Nylene13

    Excellent Post Gypsy!

    Another thing to talk about is Capitalism. Capitalism and Environmentalism cannot exist together.

    As Bernie said, the Environment must become our Priority.

    After what the DNC did to Bernie, I do not think we can reach meaningful change from the Democratic Party. They are too corrupt, to in bed with the Republicans.

    We need a new Environment First System and we need a new Socialist Political System.

    Anything less is just blow’in in the wind.

  • GypsyFreyja

    Thank you Nylene.
    Yes, the environment must indeed be a priority, not to be negotiated.

  • Bill Rood

    There are existing parties that are worthy of consideration. Imagine what the Greens could accomplish with $100 million, or any of several socialist parties. Even the Libertarian Party might be convinced that states should not be interfering in contracts between employers and unions that require all employees in a bargaining unit to join the union and pay dues. Such laws have nothing to do with a “right to work.” They allow an individual to violate the rights of their fellow workers by taking the results of the union’s negotiations without compensation. If only union leaders would talk to them (Libertarians).

  • Bill Rood

    Trumka has been issuing empty threats for years. When will the rank and file realize that their well paid union leaders are part of the elite problem.

  • Bill Rood

    Huxley indeed, a professor of medical ethics recently suggested that Americans be dosed with a “compliance” drug, perhaps in their water supply! While I am for ending the War on Drugs and allowing people to ingest substances that may have long term negative consequences if that’s their decision, I oppose mandatory soma, and those choosing to ingest should not be rescued from the long term consequences of their decisions.

  • Bill Rood

    It is vital that not only unions but also the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty itself rec­og­nize that grow­ing union mem­ber­ship is a direct ben­e­fit to Demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal goals

    I think the author misunderstands “Democratic political goals.” Those goals are to achieve status and privilege granted by elite billionaires. They have nothing to do with benefiting workers.

  • Nylene13

    My IWW Great Grandparents and Grandparents took part in the Seattle General Strike.

    1918-I think was the year.

    Lasted only 3 Days but scared The Federal Government so bad -they never forgot. Many Decades later -Members of the Federal Government would still occasionally say-regarding the General Strike -“The Soviet State of Washington”.

  • chetdude

    Indeed, what a larger group of organizers using Green Party Values could accomplish with $100 million would be far better than continuing to allow unions’ $100 million in contributions have no effect on the DNC…

    Most “libertarians” would strenuously object to union leaders meddling in businesses, making rules about workplace conditions and opposing the employer’s inalienable Right to exploit workers to extract their surplus value to build their “wealth”…

    The mantra of most libertarians is if you can’t defend yourself against exploitation by those “stronger” than you, tough sh*t…

  • Stephen Morrell

    Just a couple of the more egregious items from the bourgeois Greens leader Hawkins’ presidential platform:
    (i) Reduce the Pentagon budget by 75%; (ii) no first-use of nuclear weapons. Thus Hawkins will continue to fund the Pentagon professional killers for the US empire; and use nuclear weapons in a way that ensures the human species is wiped out in a nuclear exchange rather than just the US. And exactly what is it that a US President Hawkins would do to provoke another nuclear power to launch a first strike against the US? But what’s so ludicrous in all this is that the Greens are against nuclear energy in principle, but don’t mind at all if nuclear weapons are in the hands of the most dangerous ruling class on the planet. Go figure.

    In practice, the Greens already have proven their worth to the German bourgeoisie, where they got their furthest in bourgeois electoral politics. Essentially they propped up the German government from 1998 to 2005, and Joschka Fischer served as the German foreign minister during the Iraq war. The German bourgeoisie may be the imperial boss of the Eurozone, but the Greens in alliance with the SPD left a real legacy for the German working class: the ramming through of Eurozone diktats with the Hartz IV laws and Agenda 2010 that gutted numerous social welfare provisions in Germany. Thanks to such sterling help from the Greens, Germany now has a two-tiered workforce.

    So, giving $100 million to the Greens — who have a proven track record of serving as faithful waterboys for a more ‘progressive’ wing of the bourgeoisie — won’t end well.

  • Stephen Morrell

    This is how hard it really is: The trade union misleaders must be ousted and replaced by leaders who have a program that ultimately leads to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. How? Here’s a likely scenario:
    1. The misleaders won’t be ousted in union elections alone, although these can always help, but in hard class struggle and battles which win. The leaders of such victories necessarily will have outmaneuvered and exposed the backstabbing bureaucrats and shown the rank and file the first steps in opposing all the forces arrayed against them.
    2. However, if these ‘natural’ union leaders are to remain steadfast in their opposition to alien class forces and not be co-opted and otherwise compromised, they need a political program that addresses the needs of the members under all imaginable circumstances, from lockouts to the closed shop, from unemployment and automation to overwork, from racism to class unity, from united fronts, hot cargoing and flying pickets to workers defense guards; and so on.
    3. Revolutionary parties begin as propaganda groups and typically recruit their initial members from universities and from politically advanced layers of workers who as such become declassed professional revolutionaries.
    4. When it acquires enough critical mass to gain a foothold in the working class, often through splits and fusions, such a revolutionary propaganda group will implant its most reliable members into key industrial and union strongholds to act as revolutionary fractions within the factories, mills, mines, warehouses, etc.
    5. Such fractions will intersect and strive to recruit the most militant layers of the union membership, the ‘natural’ leaders, and build opposition caucuses with a revolutionary program. They run in union elections, but most crucially become the best builders of industrial actions against the bosses.
    6. When class conflict erupts, the caucuses will be there to provide a strategic and tactical program to win.
    7. That revolutionary program essentially is Trotsky’s Transitional Program, which fights for everyday but fundamental working class demands in a logical, coherent and consistent manner that leads inexorably from struggles for these limited demands, which can’t be satisfied by capitalism, into the struggle for state power. [locatable at the Marxist(dot)org archive] In the current environment the Transitional Program is eerily prescient.
    8. If the ‘natural’ leaders who’ve arisen and in the heat of class battles have effectively exposed the treachery of the existing trade union misleadership to the rank and file are recruited to the revolutionary program and trade union caucuses, then the first crucial steps have been taken to oust the trade union misleaders and turn the union into a true weapon for class warfare. For a practical example of revolutionaries capturing the leadership of a union local, in Minneapolis, look at Revolutionary Teamsters by Bryan Palmer or American City by Charles Rumford Walker.
    9. In the US, only from sinking such roots in the organised working class, which can grow exponentially in the heat of battle, will the working class grow its own mass party, and in all likelihood one close to be a revolutionary one.

    And when all this happens, revolution won’t be too far off.

  • Southern

    For every 100 M donated to the Greens the DuoPoly is bound to receive a Billion.

    The difference would the source of the funds – fictional characters such as corporations should simply not be allowed to make political donations – that leaves the electorate and many people in the US are not allowed to vote due to a number of reasons you and I are well aware of.

    Wait and see how the upcoming election will go, the present system in place [in the US] simply does not allow any form of competition to the status quo

    This has been going on for far too long….with no end in sight.