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October 22, 2002

Labor and Politics

Leo Casey asks in response to my post on Labor's endorsement of Pataki, on an email list we share:

Although I agree with Nathan that this particular election does not harbor some great predictive power for how these unions will endorse in other elections, I think that he and others need to come to grips with how the decline of the New Deal coalition shredded the political strategy of progressive unions [they were at the center of the liberal New Deal coalition], since we have to develop a new union political strategy to replace that one. Does Nathan have any ideas on how to reconstruct a political strategy for progressive unions?
My response-- already been done-- see California. I have a post on the amazing array of legislation, much unreported, that has passed in the last couple of years since Dems took full control of the state, and it would be even better without a number of Gray Davis vetos. See California: Where Democrats Can be Democrats. It also emphasizes why people are under the illusion that national Democrats are less progressive than they really are-- the filibuster prevents any party from getting their real policy passed, so a lot of folks, pundits and left critics, mistake the bipartisan deals necessarily negotiated for the real policy intent of the respective parties.

The revival of progressive politics and unionism is pretty straightforward and prosaic. California charted it-- labor reengaged with environmentalists in the early 90s to get beyond the "jobs versus the environment" tradeoff to find win-win challenges to corporate policy, labor supported immigrant rights during the Prop 187 fight, crucial for cementing those new communities into progressive unionism and politics and then reengaged with the basics of person-to-person mobilization by the end of the 1990s.

One of the key stories not understood by most people outside the labor movement was the lesson from the anti-labor Prop 226 fight in 1998, the proposition to largely cut employee checkoffs to support political work. That campaign brought a radical realization by labor unions of their mobilization power. I was hanging around a number of unions in California then, and to a person, they all thought they were going to lose that election, not surprising since the polls at the beginning showed something like 80% support and a majority of UNION members for the prop.

The AFL-CIO had wasted millions of dollars in TV ads in the 1996 Presidential election and their members had not responded in a number of key races. But in 1998, the California unions went to the phone banks, mobilized volunteers, and suddenly found that they could massively move the election results on Prop 226, both by educating their members and by increasing union voter turnout. The lesson to concentrate on the "ground war" of turnout went national after that experience.. I remember hearing one West Coast AFL-CIO official telling a group of folks that the shocking thing they learned was that their members treated them as a trusted source of information-- kind of a Sally Fields moment for the unions of finding their members liked them, they really liked them :) The key was not empty labor endorsements but giving members the information of voting records and policy positions--and the key was giving them the information in person, union member to union member, where the trust level was highest. See this AFL-CIO analysis of the Prop 226 fight and this analysis about the overall national 1998 vote, with some reference to the particular California fight.

One other story from that campaign was the latino vote. Because of labor opposition to Prop 187, the latino leadership not only came out solidly against the anti-union proposition, they mobilized the community to vote massively against it. Latinos voted in higher numbers against the anti-union measure than against the anti-bilingual education measure that passed the same year the anti-union prop was defeated.

And its worth remembering that it was massive union turnout in the primary that had originally allowed Gray Davis to beat out his two multimillionaire competitors-- scary to think of an election where Davis was the poorly funded contestant, but there you were. Davis has been an undependable ally for labor but as my post on California notes, he's signed enough to make California a beacon of progressivism nationally.

The problem at the national level is expanding the organizing, both electorally and in the workplace, to have a similar effect, and needing not a majority in Congress, but 60+ Senators to overcome filibusters. It's also worth remembering that three times since the 1960s, under LBJ, under Carter, and under Clinton, major labor reform received majority votes in both houses of Congress but died under a Senate filibuster. That all raises the bar at the national level for achieving fundamental legislative change.

But don't let the weird opportunism of New York or the problems at the national level obscure the fundamental reality that at the grassroots level, progressives depend on both union money and volunteers as the key to their success every November. I think the Center on Responsive Politics noted a few years ago that newly elected Democrats -- as opposed to incumbents who can pull in special interest money -- depend on labor for over half their campaign funds on average. So anyone who ignores labor when discussing Democratic politics is just missing the trench reality of what keeps progressives alive year to year and how we are making breakthrough successes where we have, as in California. And while the unions can of course be doing more, they are largely on the right track. It's one reason I'm pretty blase about the whole Pataki endorsement issue.

Posted by Nathan at October 22, 2002 03:47 PM

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