One candidate grew up working in Hong Kong sweatshops and led the
fight as a school board member against accepting funds from Nike. Another is the chief
steward of her union, a single working mother putting her daughter through college. A
third is a food service worker who helped organize her restaurant.
The three—Joseph Tam, Lydia Williams, and Diane Snyder—are
precisely the kinds of union members that the AFL-CIO is committed to running for public
office at its Convention last fall. The slogan was 2000 by 2000, and is part of an overdue
effort to establish increasing independence from the Democratic Party, even as the
relationship between that Party and organized labor remains important.
This "bottom-up" approach to running your own candidates
and promoting working-class issues has been heavily promoted by local affiliates of the
New Party (NP), and NP chapters or members are backing all three of the candidates. In a
dozen states, the NP works with union and community leaders to model the kind of
multi-racial coalition and political machine capable of winning and keeping power.
When members talk about elections, many of them ask why they should
even bother voting. And with most elections dominated by empty slogans and 30-second
attack ads—with little discussion of real issues—it’s hard to argue with
them. Unlike typical candidates like developers, lawyers, wealthy businesspeople, unions
can and should focus on the issues that matter to working people.
Consider Joseph Tam’s nonpartisan race for Multnomah County
Commission in Portland. He’s running for a specific seat, as well as campaigning for
a county ballot measure to increase business taxes to fund the schools. He’s
committed to passing a living wage law at the county level and a campaign finance reform
measure to limit the influence of wealthy donors and corporations. He’s pledged to
help fight to defeat "right-to-work for less" ballot measures and other
anti-union provisions. Most importantly, as with all NP-backed candidates, he expects to
be held accountable to the working-class and community organizations that help elect him.
Tam’s local gives special recognition to politicians who are
there when it counts—the handful who walk the picket line with Local 503 members are
warmly re-endorsed and supported. But even so, union members see a real difference when
members of their own union run for office.
"Some endorsed legislators needed to have the union hold their
feet to the fire, to make sure they voted against the takebacks on Oregon’s minimum
wage increase," comments Tam. "Electing union members means we have not just a
half-hearted vote for labor, but a real voice for labor."
In Diane Snyder’s case, her campaign for the Butte, Montana
school board grew directly out of the experience of her union—HERE Local 427. School
administrators have received substantial bonuses and raises this year, but the school
board has refused to budge from an anemic 1 percent raise for district workers. The
transit workers recently went out on strike, shutting down the schools for a week.
"They’re screwing the people who are taking care of our kids," says Snyder,
a mother of three.
"For us to be able to elect hundreds and eventually thousands
of our own members, we need to build ties with women’s groups, community groups,
environmentalists, civil rights groups," says SEIU Local 880 head organizer
Keith Kelleher. "We know we can’t do it on our own."
Activists in all three of these campaigns have reached well beyond
their union base. In Portland, Tam is being backed by the Rainbow Coalition, the New
Party, and the Oregon Wildlife Federation as well as SEIU, AFSCME, UFCW, and the NW Oregon
Labor Council. In Chicago, Williams—the chief steward for SEIU Local 73 who is
running for an open State Senate seat—is being supported by ACORN, the NP, and the
29th Ward People’s Assembly, as well as by the SEIU state council, AFSCME, and the
A key aim in all three cities is to ensure that these coalitions are
solidly built and will endure, regardless of one campaign’s outcome. In Chicago, for
example, many of the organizations involved in the Williams race are already recruiting
candidates for spring 1999 alderperson races, and see this effort as part of an emerging
labor-Black-Latino independent progressive political movement that can eventually
challenge the Democratic machine.
"As labor looks to build its own political power, we’re
naturally going to look beyond the Democrats. We want to build our own independent labor
and community based political groups that are going to be committed to our agenda and
committed to electing our members to office," says Local 427 secretary-treasurer and
New Party national co-chair Secky Fascione. "With its focus on working in local
elections and its history of working for living wage jobs and workers’ rights, the
New Party is a natural vehicle for us to do that."
Local unions are often much more impacted by the actions of local
governments than by Congress, and 77 percent of elections in the U.S. are nonpartisan.
These local elections (sometimes targeted for base-building by groups such as the
Christian Coalition) are largely ignored by the major parties, leaving a fertile ground
for independent labor-based strategies.
This kind of politics is the strongest long-term alternative to the
more familiar labor strategy of "any Democrat will do." As the AFL-CIO gears up
for the 1998 Congressional elections, it’s important to remember that the real future
of labor political action lies in the kind of people, coalitions, and daily precinct-level
work that is underway in Butte, Chicago, Portland, and