[As published by Alexander Burns in Politico]
Members of the AFL-CIO erupted in applause this week when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told them that their agenda was “America’s agenda.”
Less certain, according to a collection of top union officials, is whether labor’s agenda is still the Democratic Party’s agenda.
Assembled here for the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial convention, less than a year after unions played a pivotal role in helping Democrats win a powerful popular victory in the 2012 presidential election, labor leaders from across the country voiced impatience and exasperation with national politicians whom they say take union members for granted.
As a result, union leaders say they are more determined than ever to forge an independent path for organized labor — not turning their backs on Democrats but focusing their substantial resources on helping officeholders and candidates who actually champion their issues.
In the near term, that means plowing labor resources in 2014 into defeating Republican governors who have been labor’s most vigorous opponents and creating a “progressive firewall” in the U.S. Senate that will prevent Republicans from capturing control. It does not necessarily mean, labor strategists said, pumping funds into reelecting red-state Democrats who are unlikely to go to bat for unions down the line.
And at the convention this week, the membership of the AFL-CIO also passed a resolution expressing support for eventual primary challenges to incumbents who fail to stick up for labor. “We must promote pro-worker candidates in primaries to hold Democrats and Republicans accountable for their votes and to elect more progressive officials,” read the resolution, which also committed to putting more funds into Workers’ Voice, the pro-labor super PAC.
Speaking to reporters Monday, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders issued this stern warning to candidates: “If they don’t support working families or they cross us, whether they’re Democrat or Republican, then we’re going to be developing programs to go after them.”
Not all union chieftains go quite so far in their language, but there was a palpable sense among the labor brass here that simply supporting politicians with a “D” next to their name hasn’t gotten the job done for their membership.
As Democrats have embraced the rhetoric of economic populism, casting themselves as the party of middle-class and working people fighting against an oligarch-controlled GOP, union priorities have languished in Congress. Even after President Barack Obama first took office and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, the Employee Free Choice Act — a progressive organizing proposal, and labor’s ultimate legislative priority — never moved an inch.
Recently, some unions have voiced concern about provisions of the Affordable Care Act that they say might lead to workers losing employer-backed or multi-employer insurance coverage. Big Labor could get snubbed again when Obama chooses a nominee to lead the Federal Reserve: The AFL-CIO has strongly endorsed Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen for the job, while Obama reportedly favors centrist Larry Summers, a former Harvard president.
For some here, all of that signals a worrisome decoupling of progressive economic ideas and the political institutions dedicated to advancing them. An ascendant Democratic Party is a small prize for unions if it represents a kind of Manhattan-and-Marin County liberalism, rather than the agenda of the union hall.
“[Democrats] talk about the plight of workers, the need to rebuild the middle class. Those are the symptoms. The problem is you’re not empowering enough workers to form and join unions,” said Ed Wytkind, who helms the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department.
Citing Warren and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown as model Democratic allies, Wytkind said there are plenty of figures in the party with “relationships with some of the more sinister corporations that have an agenda that is completely counter to the values that they claim to embrace.”
Richard Trumka , who was reelected as the AFL-CIO’s president Tuesday, downplayed any suggestions of a schism with Democrats — “We have a whole lot more friends in the Democratic Party than we do on the Republican side” — but agreed that labor needs to be attentive to who its allies really are.
“There are many representatives in the Democratic Party who are friends of labor. There are some that are acquaintances of labor and some that are really, I guess, less than acquaintances,” he said. “We will be an independent voice for workers.”
That language is not new for Trumka, nor is the underlying goal. Since he took over the organization, the former coal miner has emphasized expanding the AFL-CIO’s political resources, building out its capacity to run independent campaigns rather than simply cutting checks to Democratic candidates and independent expenditure groups. (Labor remains a major funder of Democratic outside spending.)
The union giant points to Senate races last year in Massachusetts and Ohio, featuring Warren and Brown, as well as elections in Wisconsin and Montana, as places where the AFL-CIO ran its own operations to protect or vault new progressive leaders into the Senate.
And despite reservations from some conservative-leaning unions, Trumka and his lieutenants have pressed to expand and formalize relationships with other liberal pressure groups outside the labor movement — environmental organizations and women’s advocacy groups, for example.
The idea is that strengthening the progressive coalition overall is a better long-term bet for labor — one that gives unions more freedom and power to support their staunch allies — than pouring cash and energy into the coffers of the Democratic Party.
To some more traditional members of the labor movement, that approach is a lurch in a risky direction for an ideologically diverse union coalition.
“Somehow formalizing partnerships, alignments, affiliations with progressive groups — and the word progressive, progressive, progressive being used to such an extreme — in my judgment is going to alienate many workers,” said Harold Schaitberger, head of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Laborers’ International Union of North America General President Terry O’Sullivan, who represents the nation’s builders, argued that some level of bipartisanship is essential if unions want to retain their traditional working-class membership and avoid Democratic complacency about their issues.
“We have champions like Nancy Pelosi, who is a champion for working men and women, and then we have others who I think take us for granted,” said O’Sullivan, whose group broke ranks with other unions to endorse GOP Gov. Chris Christie’s reelection in New Jersey. “We have a history of working with Republicans, and we’ll continue to work with Democrats who are like-minded.”
Yet on the whole, the attendees here seemed to gravitate toward Trumka’s version of “independence.” In another resolution, the AFL-CIO committed to building “joint projects and campaigns” with allied groups, specifically naming women’s groups and groups advocating for black, Hispanic and Asian-Americans.
The key, most unions hope, will be showing Democrats that there’s a difference between saying the right things about working people and doing the right things for the labor movement — without losing sight of the reality that there’s only one party that’s broadly supportive of unions at all.
“No one can accuse us of only focusing on one political party when there’s an issue,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, citing AFT’s sharp criticism of both Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (a Democrat) and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (a Republican) in an ongoing clash over city schools. “We’re going to speak truth to power about everything.
“But at the end of the day, the Democratic Party, dating back to FDR, has been out there speaking about working folk and how you have a safety net for working people.”