I have been struck, both positively and negatively, by the approach taken by labor unions towards the 2008 Presidential race.
On the plus side of the column, differences between unions on who to endorse are very public. Additionally there has been no rush by the AFL-CIO or Change To Win to make an early endorsement. In fact, it was reported that SEIU had, some months ago, been preparing to endorse either Clinton or Obama, only to halt after Edwards gave a speech at a SEIU Political Conference that brought the house down.
On the minus side of the column, however, there are some fairly traditional problems. They are exemplified by the following:
The American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) rushed to endorse Senator Clinton despite a significant pro-Obama camp within their ranks. This was followed, within the last few weeks, with revelations of internal strife when pro-Obama forces accused AFSCME President Gerald McEntee of using AFSCME funds to finance attack ads against Senator Obama in New Hampshire.
UNITE HERE, the union resulting from the merger of the textile & garment union and the hotel/restaurant workers, had cultivated a very close relationship with former Senator Edwards over the last few years. All indications seemed to be pointing towards a UNITE HERE endorsement of Edwards. Suddenly, apparently at the initiative of UNITE HERE leaders in Chicago and Las Vegas, there was a sudden turn around and the union endorsed Obama, stunning candidate Edwards.
None of the established unions seemed to take Congressman Kucinich seriously despite his very pro-labor and anti-corporate platform.
Despite the continuous rhetoric of ‘doing politics’ differently, most unions–from both sides of the AFL-CIO/Change To Win split–tend to fall back into established patterns of action. There is a very deep reluctance to take any risks, which tends to mean supporting established candidates rather than cultivating candidates who have a stronger progressive and pro-worker orientation. To add to this, for many of the top national union leaders there is an urge to be close to the inner circle, irrespective of the politics of the candidate. This total situation becomes very apparent when looking at the various unions that fall over themselves to back Senator Clinton, whereas Kucinich, Edwards, and in distant third place Obama, should be the more logical choices given their stands on the various issues affecting working people.
The additional factor worth noting is the squeamishness concerning the prospect of having real internal debates within the unions themselves. While there are exceptions, the most significant debates tend to go on at the ‘top’ rather than there being events and programs oriented towards engaging the membership in discussions regarding political direction. How often, for instance, are there discussions on the issues that follow a candidate’s presentation?
I would have hoped that with the explosive expansion of the Internet and the Web that there would have been greater debate within the ranks. Yet it reminds one that technology is only an instrument. In order to move a debate, there must be organized forces which help to advance a position and/or facilitate a dialogue. Such dialogues will rarely happen on their own. In the case of the Presidential race, there has been a lot of information flowing across cyberspace, but that does not necessarily represent or lead to an organized debate. We, on the Left, should have approached this in a far more organized fashion with the objective of moving the discussion, even without the permission of the top national union leaders.
Where do we go from here? It is far from too late to push issues, and by this we should not simply think about the party platforms. The party platforms tend to be nearly meaningless. What is important is what the candidates actually hold close, i.e., what are the key issues that the candidates are actually running on and for which they can actually be held accountable. This is what makes formations such as US Labor Against the War (USLAW) so important. USLAW is a voice within organized labor for a progressive, anti-war stand. Its work contributed significantly to the anti-war resolution of the AFL-CIO and can potentially be a factor in pushing unions to adopt anti-war stands vis a vis the candidates. To put it another way, having an organized force such as USLAW can help to ensure that when unions are interacting with the candidates, they push them on the war. We need similar internal pressures on a variety of issues facing working class people that unions should be addressing.
We also need to address what one means by ‘doing politics’ differently. If unions are going to be serious about that, it must mean that they engage their members at the local level–across union boundaries–in discussions about what a pro-worker agenda is. We need to start at the local level and, along with other working class allies (such as worker centers), engage in discussions concerning the nature and shape of a working people’s agenda for cities and counties. This does not start with gravitating toward particular candidates, but, instead, starts with a discussion about what is happening to working class people and what should be the nature and shape of the response. ‘Doing politics’ this way would undoubtedly send shock-waves throughout the political establishment…which is precisely what we need to be doing if we want to put any content behind this now popular word called "change."
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is an international and labor writer and activist. He is the co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal (www.centerforlaborrenewal.org) and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. He can be reached at [email protected]