Despite Democratic politicians’ lackof fidelity to big labor, unions are still forced to support them. Major changes this election cycle, however, have redirected funding awayfrom the national level, as unions focus more and more on the state andlocal levels.
The current political dynamics and economic climate are transforming the relationship between the modern-day labor movement and the Democratic Party, which has historically been the union’s party of choice. Understanding this process will provide insight into the future of Labor Unions and their agenda.
Political support – whether from union political action committee (PAC) monies,grass-root support groups, support action committees, election mobilizationactions or any of the vast array of methods unions use to support politicians – has always been a contentious endeavor. While I served as aunion lobbyist in Washington, D.C. and worked with union legislativedepartments, there were endless debates on how to achieve balance. Balance waskey. We had to ensure that the right politicians were selected: those who would support the unionmovement but not take us for granted once they entered office. Despite all ofour efforts, there were many politicians who refused to fulfill their promisesto the unions after they were elected. Another roadblock to union control wasthe infighting, which led to many stopgap solutions that were never brought toconclusion and fractured the union movement with the creation of the Change toWin federation.
A big part of today’s problem is that the unions’ interestshave outgrown the interests of their members. Unions are now finding themselvesexpanding into foreign markets in order to keep pace with large conglomerates.This not only means that they have to negotiate organizing alliances withinternational federations but, more importantly, are forced to merge withforeign unions. Interactions with foreign federations and mergers with foreignunions have put American unions in a “political pickle”, as politicians of bothparties have been pushing for trade deals to expand U.S. exports, while unionshave been fighting against these measures for years. A perfect example of thisis the recent trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, which created unionoutcry when it passed in 2011.
Most rank-and-file union members don’tunderstand the international expansion that unions have embarked upon or how theirdues are being used to finance this effort. Millions of dollars are being spentto fight labor law changes in Latin America and Asia. Colombia in particular hasbecome a hotbed of union intervention. I happened to be in Colombia back in 2000with the United Steelworkers (USW), meeting with some of the country’s unionfederations Central Unitaria de Trabajadores& Unión de Trabajadores Colombianos andinterviewing workers at multinational companies like Coca-Cola to document alleged abuses, threats and murders.It was like a witch-hunt and was the early stage of wherethe unions are now in their efforts to globalize to survive. These campaigns aredone to build trust and find common ground around the globe with foreign laborfederations that know all too well that American unions have an ultimategoal of putting a stop to the outsourcing of jobs into markets that aredesparate to have them.
The latest political quagmire is evident in some ofthe long-term choices unions have been making this election season.
In 2008,unions collectively contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure thatkey Democrats (including President Obama) were elected. They did so with anunderstanding that significant changes would be made in labor law, which wouldmake it easier for them to operate and organize new members. To date, they havenot seen all of the changes they expected. When the Employee Free Choice Act(EFCA) came to vote, it did not have enough support to pass. Richard Trumka,President of the AFL/CIO, laid the blame on President Obama and said it wascaused by Mr. Obama’s lack of direction and support.
Due to these “failures”,today’s union leaders have uniformly expressed a lack of enthusiasm aboutspending more money to elect politicians in national elections. They haveclearly indicated that the money should be spent at the local level, as theyfeel it would better serve their agendas. In May of 2011, Trumka declaredlabor’s independence and vowed to put money that was earmarked for nationalpolitical support into organizing efforts to obtain new members.
TheDemocratic Party, at the national level, has made choices that further reinforcethe unions’ decision to distance themselves. There was little support fromPresident Obama towards the recall efforts against the Republican Governor ofWisconsin, Scott Walker. Unions also felt a slap in the face when the DemocraticNational Convention was held in Charlotte, NC, which is a state with very stronganti-union laws for public employees.
These are just a few of the reasons that the AFL/CIO and other unions havedecided to put an end to funding candidates at the national level.
Unions aredesparately trying to escape the corner they have painted themselves into, butas Republicans push toward reforming collective bargaining in the publicsector, unions find themselves right back in the arms of the Democratic party. Aperfect example of this is California’s Proposition 32, on this November’sballot. If pased, Prop 32 wouldprohibit unions and corporations from making political contributions. Thewording of Prop 32 regarding corporate provisions is far weaker than the wordingfor union contributions; it even prevents unions from using automatic payrolldeductions to raise money for political campaigns.
Democrats at the statelevel have been doing their best to try to bring union support their way. Anexample of this can be found in Proposal 2 in my home state of Michigan. Prop 2 would add language to the StateConstitution guaranteeing the right to organize and bargain collectively forpublic and private employees. According to F. Vincent Vernuccio,Director ofLabor Policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Prop 2 would make it virtually impossible for Michigan to become a Right to Work statewithout further amending the State Constitution. Members of the current StateSenate support Michigan becoming a Right to Work State, even thoughRepublican Governor Rick Snyder has publicly urged them not to pursue it.
The unions are using Prop 2 as a back-door way to repeal the Emergency ManagerLaw in Michigan, which gives the Governor the right to appoint an EmergencyManager to municipalities in fiscal disarray to try to prevent them fromentering bankrupcty. One of the rights given to the Emergency Manager is tosuspend all union contracts to bring the municipality out of the red. Accordingto Governor Synder, this amendment would “actually override that, and couldleave us in a spot where communities might only have bankruptcy as an option andthat’s a very bad answer.” The Democrats are fighting tooth and nail for thepassage of Prop 2, which has been dubbed the “Protect Our Jobs Amendment” andthe “Protect Working Families Amendment”, creative names for a change in theState Constitution that would protect the power currently enjoyed by unionleadership at the taxpayers’ expense (including dues-paying union members). According to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the passage of Prop 2 couldcost taxpayers 1.6 billion dollars.
Where does this leave the unions and theDemocratic Party? Very little will change in the foreseeable future. While it istrue that unions have been trying to wean themselves from Democrats at thenational level who have been unreliable to the union agenda, unions have nochoice at this moment but to reluctantly maintain their alliances. Unions arecertainly looking for options for change. I predict that the AFL/CIO will takesteps to reunite over the next two years.
There are rumblings in Washington that the NLRB’s “quickie elections” will beimplemented after the elections. Unions are hoping for truth to the D.C.rumblings because, as their membership grows (which it certainly will with”quickie elections”, unless employers are proactive and prepared), so will theirconsolidation of power on a national level. This will, in turn, further their ability toexert influence more and more on a state and local level.