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Can Unions Break From the Democrats? What a Real Declaration of Independence Would Mean

Richard Trumka at the Power Shift 2011 rally, April 19, 2011. In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Trumka called for a labor movement focused on workers and families, not political candidates. (Photo:

Can Unions Break From the Democrats? What a Real Declaration of Independence Would Mean

Richard Trumka at the Power Shift 2011 rally, April 19, 2011. In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Trumka called for a labor movement focused on workers and families, not political candidates. (Photo:

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On May 20, American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) President Richard Trumka issued a warning to those Democratic candidates who rely on labor's resources when running for office but hold social movements at arm's length once in office: become champions for working families, he told them, or don't assume that unions will be there for you in the future.

In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Trumka stated, “What workers want is an independent labor movement that builds the power of working people – in the workplace and in political life.”

The role of this “independent” labor movement, he added, “is not to build the power of a political party or a candidate. It is to improve the lives of working families and strengthen our country.”

Implicitly putting do-nothing Democrats on alert, he said, “It doesn’t matter if candidates and parties are controlling the wrecking ball or simply standing aside – the outcome is the same either way. If leaders aren’t blocking the wrecking ball and advancing working families' interests, working people will not support them. This is where our focus will be – now, in 2012, and beyond.”

Striking Independent

So, what do these types of statements mean for working families and for progressive movements?

Undoubtedly, Trumka's speech is a positive sign. Rhetoric is often an important precursor to action. Unless we're willing to start talking about approaching our political program in a manner more strategic than “bankroll the lesser-evil candidate,” we'll always be beholden to a Democratic Party that drifts ever further to the right.

However, to move beyond rhetoric and make an independent stance a reality, we need to do three things.

First, we have to be clear about what we want. Telling politicians that they must be champions for labor cannot mean that we present them with a laundry list of the legislative priorities of each AFL-CIO affiliate and call that an agenda. Too often, politicians merely use such lists as talking points, giving lip service to labor goals without truly embracing a pro-union vision.

Unions should instead come together around larger imperatives. In order to demand a higher standard of accountability from elected officials, we must establish a consensus definition amongst ourselves of what it means to stand with the labor movement. This definition, first and foremost, should be based on reaffirming collective bargaining as an effective way to improve wages and living standards in America.

This is a fundamental issue. Whether collective bargaining rights are reinforced through the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) or through some other mechanism is a secondary question. The important point is that politicians embrace the idea that workers' organizations have a vital role to play in the stewardship and governance of the economy.

With this principle established, we must assert the need to expand collective bargaining beyond the models that prevailed in the industrial economy of the mid-20th century. Our economy has transformed in critical ways in recent decades. So many of the community members who came out to support public employees in Wisconsin would not be able to form a union at their jobs. Passing EFCA and ensuring card check recognition procedures might help for those in traditional workplaces. But those who are freelancers, independent contractors or otherwise have nontraditional work arrangements would still be left out. Demanding that politicians stand with organized labor should entail reforming labor law so that we can bring in all of those who are now excluded.

Read more “Walking the Walk” columns from author, activist, social entrepreneur and labor veteran Amy Dean.

In addition to making greater demands on politicians, we will also have to challenge ourselves to make these excluded workers a core part of our political vision. This will require us to reach out beyond our existing membership. It will mean expending political capital to uphold the rights of all employees, not merely trying to defend the increasingly narrow slice of the workforce covered under current collective bargaining agreements.

Training Candidates in Advance of Elections

Secondly, our rhetoric of independence must be backed by the creation of local training programs, through which the labor movement and its community allies educate prospective candidates about our movements. This does not mean convening candidates to lecture them about pet legislative initiatives. Rather, it should be oriented toward establishing an entirely different type of relationship.

Candidates know that labor is the biggest game in town on the Democratic side of the aisle in terms of political donations and on-the-ground support for getting out the vote. Therefore, they have a sense that union support is obligatory if they are going to get elected. The difficulty is that the processes that different unions have for endorsing candidates are uncoordinated and diffuse, allowing candidates to get away with making vague promises that are rarely fulfilled. Worse yet, it makes politicians think that they can win support by brokering a few special deals for specific groups of workers – even if they spend the rest of their time in office advancing policies that undermine the middle class as a whole.

When we allow this type of dealmaking, we only reinforce the public perception of unions as narrow special interest groups. And we leave a much more basic problem unaddressed: the right wing has done a tremendous job of painting both unions and government as impediments to the free market. As a result, many people – elected officials included – no longer look to unions to be part of the solution when it comes to building a healthy economy. Quite simply, we have been shut out of the ideological debate.

To reverse this trend, we need to be able to thoughtfully make the case that the labor movement has been a vital force in the creation and maintenance of the American middle class. We must start to engage candidates before we ever make formal endorsements and educate them to see progressive social movements as indispensable partners in generating public policy. Only by doing this can we build an informed constituency of elected leaders who will understand the importance of collective bargaining in a democratic society, and who will commit themselves to expanding it.

More Than One Election Cycle

Third, we have to be prepared to carry out a new political strategy from more than one election cycle.

With their attacks at the state level, the right has successfully put us on the defensive. Wisconsin is a key case in point. Many people are claiming the popular uprising in that state as a victory for the labor movement. Certainly, the fact that so many community members came out to support public employees was an exciting development, showing the potential for unions to build broad-based alliances. But we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that the situation is anything but dire. While Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did not manage to implement a wholesale rollback of collective bargaining rights, he did secure a partial one.

In Wisconsin and elsewhere, even if we stave off right-wing assaults through recall drives and other efforts, conservatives will have succeeded in diverting our focus and our resources. Our opponents will win a war of attrition unless we go on the offensive and begin to elect champions for working people.

To carry out a long-term strategy, we have to be prepared to give up our current illusion of influence. Too often, we are charmed by access. We are invited to sit on White House roundtables, or we are impressed that top officials will answer our calls. But what has this gotten us? If anyone has doubt about why simply electing more Democrats will not be enough for the labor movement to thrive – let alone survive – they need only to look at the track record under our past three Democratic presidents. Pro-union legislation and labor law reform failed under President Carter. It was never seriously considered under President Clinton. And EFCA was dead on arrival under President Obama.

We cannot keep making excuses for elected officials, saying that the “political will” necessary for them to do their jobs was not present. Political will begins with us. If we want a different result in the future, we must begin to do politics differently. And that means getting serious about putting force behind our declarations of independence.

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