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Labor’s Stockholm Syndrome: Why Unions Must Stop Backing Anti-Labor Candidates in the Primaries

Alternative strategies to labor’s current custom of backing anti-worker Democrats are both necessary and viable.

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Stockholm syndrome: Feelings of trust or affection felt in certain cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim towards a captor.

In the 2016 Democratic primary, US labor unions overwhelmingly endorsed Hilary Clinton and invested millions of dollars in ensuring her nomination. Few eyebrows were raised, despite Clinton’s questionable record and platform towards workers. Why not? Organized labor’s support for political enemies of unions and workers is so common it has become expected. The labor movement suffers from a political Stockholm syndrome, embracing the very politicians who attack them. The embrace of Hillary Clinton, openly hostile to the current campaigns of some of the very unions who endorsed her, exposes the self-destructive absurdity of the situation. An intervention is needed or unions will be hard-pressed to reverse their current decline if they do not shake the Stockholm syndrome and adopt different political strategies.

Endorsing less-than-friendly politicians is nothing new for US unions but the widespread endorsement of Hilary Clinton is a reductio ad absurdum of the practice. Clinton, in addition to maintaining a general anti-labor slant, has opposed the principal campaigns of some of the very unions endorsing her.

For example, how did the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) respond to Clinton’s refusal to support a $15 minimum wage, something the SEIU has invested many years and untold millions of dollars into? By enthusiastically endorsing her, investing millions of dollars into her campaign (SEIU has already given her more than $2 million), and vigorously mobilizing its members to vote and volunteer for Hillary as their champion.

Similarly, how did the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), who dedicated years and millions of dollars to organizing Walmart workers, respond to Clinton’s seven-year tenure on the Walmart Board of Directors, during which she uttered nary a word on the corporation’s infamous anti-unionism? Also with an enthusiastic endorsement.

Clinton’s broader labor record is bad and the additional rounds of union endorsements — from unions whose faces were perhaps not so directly spat into — also reek of self-destruction and self-loathing. The teachers unions’ endorsements of a candidate in favor of expanding charter schools, for example, are also confounding. But the SEIU-UFCW endorsements of a candidate so diametrically opposed to the unions’ longstanding primary campaigns — their current raison d’etre, even — brings labor’s strategic crisis into sharper focus. The SEIU-UFCW early endorsement of Clinton in the primaries was nearly as absurd as a Muslim-Latino coalition for Trump would have been.

Unfortunately, labor’s endorsement of Clinton is far from an anomaly; endorsing moderate to conservative Democrats with anti-union pasts and futures has become the norm for unions. With the cards so stacked against them, serious minds within unions rarely feign that Clinton and her type are pro-worker. Instead, they generally offer two rationales for endorsing Clinton and other corporate footmen.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

First, the pro-Clinton labor leaders argue that electing a genuinely pro-worker candidate is impossible in the current political context, so better to support the moderate candidate and pray for some reciprocation than to be left with nothing but powerful enemies when the pro-worker candidate inevitably loses. They are simply being “practical.” Second, labor leaders often negotiate a concession for their own union in exchange for their endorsement, celebrating a narrow victory while claiming a realpolitik strategy of transactionalism. Both rationales are misguided.

Many unions took up the first rationale and endorsed Clinton in the primaries on the premise that Sanders couldn’t win. A closer look at the evidence unveils a self-fulfilling prophecy; labor itself likely could have swung the nomination to Sanders.

The Nevada Democratic primary, for one, was of huge importance nationally and unions largely determined the result. Pundits and candidates rightly considered Nevada a bellwether in the race, the winner gaining national momentum far more important than the state’s own delegate pledges. With the race too close to call, SEIU invested heavily in the state for Clinton and likely tipped the scales for the Fight-for-$15 opponent. According to SEIU’s own press release:

[SEIU staffers and members] worked to ensure Nevadans were educated on the caucus process and would come out to caucus for Hillary Clinton. They spent weeks making phone calls and knocking on doors. The Nevada program to engage working families resulted in 37,000 door-knocks, enlisted 10,000 voters and identified 62 first-time precinct captains who pledged to back Hillary Clinton.

In addition to SEIU’s weighty investment, Nevada’s influential Culinary Workers Union (representing Las Vegas’ mammoth casino industry), which made no official endorsement, allegedly moved behind the scenes at the midnight hour to boost Clinton. As USA TODAY reported post-primary: “[T]he story here is about the Culinary Workers Union… who helped steer the state to Clinton.” Clinton won a narrow victory and denied Sanders momentum that would have propelled him to heights about which we are left to wonder. Given labor’s influence in the state and the tight results, it would be foolish not to attribute Clinton’s Nevada victory to the labor movement. Lest there be any doubt about labor’s self-destructive behavior in the state, SEIU was caught distributing leaflets misleading members and voters to believe that Clinton supported a $15 minimum wage, farcically masking Clinton’s anti-worker politics to defeat the pro-$15 candidate.

If anecdote speaks to the possibility of a labor-led Sanders victory in Nevada, the broad data indicates a similar possibility nationwide. Despite the proclamations of impossibility from labor’s Clintonites, it is highly possible that unions could have swung the delegate count to Sanders. If unions had swung just 8 percent of primary voters in the 10 most union-populous states where they could most easily influence voters, Sanders would have beaten Clinton in total pledged delegates according to my calculation of the total vote and delegate differential. With labor’s support, Clinton won eight of these 10 states but if labor had swung 8 percent of voters, seven of them would have gone for Sanders and given him the delegate lead. Considering the high union membership in these states, 8 percent makes for a reasonable number of total voters to move. For example, the total Democratic primary voters and total union membership in New York are both roughly 2 million. Hence, labor would have had to mobilize, or simply convert, a mere 8 percent of its total membership — less than one in 12 members — to swing the state for Sanders. The millions of dollars and thousands of member volunteer-hours given to Clinton, if given to Sanders instead, would have almost certainly achieved this. (Labor unions gave more than $6.2 million and immeasurable volunteer hours to the Clinton campaign prior to the Democratic National Convention).

In the end, it’s hard to imagine that labor could not have won the nomination for Sanders if it had collectively committed to do so. And all of a sudden, the labor-Clintonites seem like obstructive cynics.

The second rationale used for endorsing anti-worker candidates like Clinton is a narrow transactionalism — unions cut a deal with the candidate, exchanging their support for a concession to their individual union. An extreme example is the Wisconsin trooper and firefighter unions endorsing Scott Walker’s 2010 bid for governor, and being subsequently carved out of Walker’s infamous, union-destroying Act 10. Other common examples include building trades unions securing Project Labor Agreements, service sector unions extracting guarantees of organizing neutrality agreements on forthcoming development projects, and public sector unions obtaining concessions in their contract negotiations.

The narrow transactionalism rationale exhibits the same shortsightedness that has haunted US unions for over a century. Failure to think as a class, as the proponents of working people in general, and focusing instead only on the narrow interests of their immediate members, is the misguided strategy that has repeatedly weakened unions and brought about its current near-death experience.

When unions fought only for their skilled members and excluded unskilled workers in the early 20th century, owners exploited unskilled factory workers miserably and nearly destroyed the increasingly powerless American Federation of Labor (AFL) craft unions, which were ultimately saved from themselves only by the rapidly growing unskilled workers’ Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s.

When unions fought against immigrant rights in the name of “good American jobs” for their members in the second half of the 20th century, employers hired unprotected immigrant workers at inhumane wages and greatly undercut the leverage of union workers. Or when unions stopped dedicating resources to organizing non-union workers, citing a need to “take care of their own first” and prioritize spending on existing members, the proportion of non-union labor ballooned and made unions increasingly vulnerable to attacks from employers who smell blood in the water.

Selling out the rest of the working class in the name of a union’s own members — the essence of the “narrow-transactionalism” political strategy — never has worked and never will. Ironically, when unions only “look out for their own members,” they doom these very members to eventual slaughter. As unions fight only for improvements on an ever-shrinking island of union workers, they eventually drown in the rising tide of non-union poverty and powerlessness.

Unions must stop supporting politicians who brutalize working class communities, gut public education, abolish social welfare programs, redistribute wealth upwards by fighting higher wages and raising corporate subsidies, privatize public services and criminalize Blacks and Latinos. If workers all around a union are suffering and desperate, it’s impossible for that union to sustainably justify, leverage and win high standards of living for its members. Helping to elect anti-worker politicians who attack the rest of the working class in exchange for narrow immediate gains for the union is self-defeating. Like the dying alcoholic who drinks to ease the pain of his rotting liver, the medicine is the disease itself. Organized labor is currently suffering the dire consequences of decades of this self-defeating approach, and it’s unclear how bad it must get for labor to recognize the strategy’s emptiness. Hopefully, unlike the dying alcoholic, they will learn to break their addiction before death becomes the ultimate teacher.

The point is not that Bernie Sanders — or similar left-wing Democrats — represent a panacea for the labor movement, but that alternative strategies to labor’s current custom of backing anti-worker Democrats are both necessary and viable. Nor is the point to advocate any one particular alternative. There are many options available for labor to pursue that merit consideration, from forming a Labor Party, to backing Sandersesque left-Democrats, to abstention from mainstream politics altogether to focus solely on organizing more non-union workers. (So long as labor leaders fight militantly alongside their members in the workplaces and provide some political education, members will be open-minded to different political strategies).

This debate must be had, and there’s no certain answer. What is certain is that if the labor movement seeks to reverse its fortunes, it must stop doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.

The US labor movement, thankfully, is not yet dead and soon unions — from Locals to Internationals to the AFL-CIO — will face the recurring question of political strategy. Labor leaders could again choose to support the corporate Democrat out of despair or by convincing themselves that they are just being practical, strategic or politically sophisticated. There will be temptation to choose the path of little struggle and seemingly little risk: the customary endorsement of the most likely Democratic victor. But as any labor organizer worth their weight in salt knows, the easiest path is seldom the right path. Labor must gather our courage and senses and choose a different path. Given the obvious dead end of our current course, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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