From The September/October issue of Dollars & Sense Magazine (subscriptions available on-line at www.dollarsandsense.org)
'New Politics' Not on CTWC Agenda
by Steve Early
“We absolutely believe the AFL-CIO has become too much in the back pocket of the Democrats.” —Anna Burger, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer and leader of the Change To Win Coalition, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2005
The situation of working people in America is grim indeed—due, in no small part, to labor’s self-defeating reliance on business-oriented neoliberal Democrats. Now that it has defected from the AFL-CIO, will the Change To Win Coalition (CTWC) break with this pattern of dependence?
The answer is yes—that is, if you consider going from bad politics to worse a good way of demonstrating labor’s “independence.” CTWC unions like the Service Employees (SEIU), the Teamsters, the Carpenters, and UNITE-HERE have found common ground in the misbegotten strategy of “teaching the Democrats a lesson”—by endorsing and financing more Republicans! In return, they hope to get patronage, political access, and favored treatment for their own organizational goals or members. Unfortunately, any such gains come at expense of the working class as whole, which is invariably harmed by implementation of the GOP’s larger political and economic agenda.
The worst CTWC offender in this regard is Carpenters’ President Doug McCarron, George Bush’s closest labor friend, who remained neutral in last year’s presidential election. For the Teamsters and its president, Jimmy Hoffa, embracing White House Republicans in order to neutralize corruption probes is an organizational and family tradition. Few unions had a bigger love-in with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or George Bush (the elder). For much of George W. Bush’s first term, Hoffa reprised this role by acting as a key lobbyist for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He even threatened to withdraw Teamster support for Senate Democrats in Michigan and New Jersey if they opposed this White House initiative. Like McCarron, Hoffa provided Bush with Labor Day photo-ops by welcoming him to union events.
Throughout the 1990s, Massachusetts Teamster officials similarly--and shamelessly--aligned themselves with Governors Bill Weld and Paul Celucci, despite the privatizing, tax-cutting agenda of their conservative administrations. They were joined by HERE’s largest New England affiliate, Local 26 in Boston. These same unions—plus the Carpenters, Teamsters, Service Employees/District 1199, and recent hotel workers’ merger partner, UNITE—then helped re-elect Republican George Pataki as governor of New York in 2002.
Pataki’s anti-worker positions included opposition to a minimum wage hike, which was finally adopted by the state legislature last year, over his veto, after intensive organizing and lobbying by New York’s feisty Working Families Party (WFP). Unfortunately, the bigger CTWC local unions in New York have tended to pursue their own political agendas, rather than putting large-scale resources into the WFP, which uses cross-endorsement and independent candidacies to advance working class issues. Now a lame duck, Gov. Pataki is still promoting right-wing schemes like privatizing the New York State Thruway; meanwhile, his “labor liaison” three years ago, Teamster and 1199 consultant Greg Tarpinian, is heavily involved with the CTWC.
In 2004, SEIU tried to buy influence elsewhere by giving $550,000 to the Republican Governors’ Association. This contribution was the group’s largest--more than it received from the NRA. The money aided GOP campaigns in 11 states, including North Carolina, where organized labor’s small base was otherwise united behind the Democratic candidate for governor. In Indiana and Missouri, victorious Republicans took office and immediately stripped state workers, including some SEIU members, of bargaining rights obtained under previous governors.
In Congress last year, SEIU and UNITE-HERE were also busy soliciting thousands of union dollars for a Denny Hastert fundraiser. The House Republican leader recently returned the favor by rounding up the votes needed to pass CAFTA--the latest free trade attack on workers here and abroad.
As this sorry track record confirms, getting into bed with Republicans is not the way to get out of “the back pocket of the Democrats.” It sends all the wrong messages to union members who are often disgusted with both major parties because they fail to represent workers’ interests. Instead, CTWC and AFL-CIO activists should unite behind efforts like the Working Families Parties in New York and Connecticut, the Vermont Progressives, the Progressive Dane party in Wisconsin, and any other state or local initiative which puts pressure on the Democrats from the left, either inside or outside the party.
In Massachusetts, a coalition of unions and community groups is currently organizing to get a referendum question on the ballot next year that would permit cross-endorsement voting of the sort already possible in New York and Connecticut. (To their credit, local affiliates of three CTWC unions—the Teamsters, SEIU, and the United Food and Commercial Workers—are supporting this measure.)
In New York, cross-endorsement or “fusion” voting has provided labor and low-income organizations like ACORN with their own working class ballot line, which can be used to reward friends and punish enemies in both major parties and to build left/labor political strength without playing a spoiler role in elections. This Working Families Party approach is far more effective than funding Republicans who are even less deserving than labor’s often unreliable “friends,” the Democrats.
Steve Early is a Boston-based national union representative of the Communications Workers of America. CWA has been a major backer of the Working Families Party in New York and Connecticut